The Eye of Every Storm
’m going to level with you. This review began as a three-page meditation on the stickiness of the word “pretentious” and how reverence for the word shifts depending on a listener’s feelings for a particular artist. If they like the artist, the word “pretentious” never arises (regardless of how obviously pretentious the band is), and if they don’t like them, the word “pretentious” is the apple juice that follows the toothpaste: spat out, rinsed away and warned against.
Then I reached a crisis: how can you preach the wonders of pretentiousness when your pretentious record review is a boring bucket of shit? So I gave it up and decided to just write about the new Neurosis record. (The omitted pretentious part is included at the end of the review if you’re interested.)
Neurosis didn’t have a chance. Influenced by Swans, Melvins, Godflesh, Earth and (eventually) Pink Floyd, it was only a matter of time before people realized they were pretentious. Keeping in mind the average underground music fan’s propensity to substitute the word “pretentious” for the word “boring”, it came as no surprise that the declaration of Neurosis’s “new-found” pretentiousness occurred after the release of 2001’s relative snoozer, A Sun That Never Sets. Never mind the fact that Neurosis’s tribal low-end dirges have always had an air of self-inspiring self-importance; forget the fact that their hypnotic sludge has always aimed for the brain as often as it has the skull; it wasn’t until A Sun that Neurosis was outwardly criticized by long time listeners for being pretentious.
Things haven’t been looking up for the anti-pretentiousness coalition since then. (You can say that again.) There have been subdued, serene solo albums. (Shit.) There has been a Tribes of Neurot album constructed using sampled insect sounds. (God damn it.) There was a collaboration with Jarboe. (Jesus Christ?! What’s next? Times of Grace performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra? What will these pretentious, artsy-fartsy, shirtless hippies do next? What could this new album be but another slow, self-important crapathon?)
The following will come as either good news or bad. The quiet-loud dynamic continues to be suppressed, with the louds being more sturdy than heavy. The intensity is more akin to that of a gathering storm than it is to that of a crumbling tower. There is singing/moaning where before there was bellowing. And, yes, there are synths galore. Still, The Eye is a magnificent example of esoteric near-heaviness. Pelican instead of Corrupted. Oceanic instead of Lysol. An album free of dead space assembled by a band devoid of dead ideas.
The following should come as good news: every song on The Eye of Every Storm is so beautiful and engaging that it’s hard to know where to start discussing them. Album opener “Burn” is the most brisk of the tracks here, but still sparse and melodic enough to mirror the pastoral images of sunlight and warm air contained in the lyrics. The key to the album might be found halfway through “Burn”: when the guitars briefly crash in, they draw more attention to the synth-and-voice tenderness that follows than they do to themselves. It’s clear by the song’s sweet, textured din of an ending that The Eye of Every Storm is going to be an album of warmth, a humid, claustrophobic warmth that first alarms, then sedates and, finally, suffocates.
This atmosphere permeates every track, infusing each song with both beauty and unease. “No River To Take Me Home” is, even at its loudest moments, completely hypnotic. You may even think the repetitive space rock fade-out is a dream until you find yourself drifting amid the ten-minute-plus title track, which is built solely on sustained bass and synth notes until the guitars make an entrance at the nine-minute mark.
From that point on, guitars return to prominence, but wrapped in gauze-y fuzz and accompanied by thick down-tuned bass, they remain invariably narcotic. Classic slow-motion eruptions can still be found in “Bridges”, where the heaviness of the drumless sludge passages is almost unbearable, and in the ten-minute “A Season In the Sky”, but this is a meditative album, a headphones album, one of the finest releases of Neurosis’s career and one of the best records of 2004.
Consider The Eye of Every Storm Neurosis’ The Great Annihilator: an hour of brooding beauty, a restrained late-in-the-game gem that would not exist without some finely honed pretentiousness. Some prayed that Neurosis would stop releasing albums after A Sun That Never Sets. (I didn’t.) They longed for a return to the crushing thud of Times of Grace. (When did I ever say that?) But to have lost Neurosis before The Eye of Every Storm would have been tragic. (I know! I’m sorry! Eye kills and I never want Neurosis to go away! God, I’d miss those pretentious bastards.)
BONUS PRETENTIOUS RAMBLING
It took a while to figure out, but here it is: The problem with it is semantic. Depending on their intent, people will either use or omit the word “unreasonable” when defining it for themselves. Regardless of its proven worth, people still treat the word like a gold-digger, licking its ear when they can use it, stapling their legs shut when it upsets them. “It”= “pretentious”.
The initial explosion of punk and hardcore resulted in a number of temporary casualties: glitter and pomp, professionalism and proficiency. But one of punk’s most notable fallen foes was pretentiousness. The fact that punk made musical expression a reality for everyone—regardless of skill—meant that ideas of personal significance, whether justified or not, were no longer valid. Anyone who was not interested in immediate, vitriolic combustion, anyone who took part in order to prove their self-perceived merit, was either questioned, hated or ignored.
Take for example Black Flag’s My War, the sludge-prog follow-up to the band’s barebones calling card, Damaged. My War was widely hated upon its release. Those looking for a reason why can listen to the album and say, easily and justifiably enough, that My War was very un-punk sounding, very un-Black Flag sounding, and that’s why it took years for the album to find favor with fans. But what really set My War apart, what made it so un-punk and un-Flag, was the fact that it was pretentious. Black Flag was through being the flagship for a battalion that was mired in shallow waters of simple, regurgitated ideas. They knew that what they were doing was important, not just in relation to a scene, but musically as well. They had ideas that they felt needed to be fleshed out and heard, for their benefit and for the benefit of others, and it began a procession of albums that included In My Head, Family Man and The Process of Weeding Out; a pretentious streak of albums rivalled by no punk rock band outside of NoMeansNo.
And NoMeansNo are one of the greatest bands ever. But why are they not more widely considered to be so? Because they’ve been pretentious for the last twenty-five years and people are finally beginning to see the beauty of pretension.
The last ten years have seen the parallel rises of post-rock, esoteric electronic music, mind-expansion hip-hop, seizure-prone prog-metal and atmospheric sludge. The beginnings of each of these sub-genres are humble ones. Indie rock. Dance music. Eighties Rap. Hardcore. Death metal. Once a band decides (and this decision does not have to be an overt one) that they either a) must or b) are able to transcend the boundaries of their chosen genre, they can accurately be considered pretentious. Once a band declares that what they are doing is too important to be confined by rules, they have ascended to the level of pretentious fags, and you should fall on your knees and kiss dirt every time this occurs. A pretentious child will lead them.
Black Flag, Autechre, Lost Poets, Slint, Refused, Nick Cave, Einsturzende Neubaten, Discordance Axis, Pink Floyd, Company Flow, Shellac, Harvey Milk, Circle, Sun City Girls, Television, Unwound, Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Swans, Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Khanate. All of these bands are pretentious, and every one of them can be applauded either for their vision, their influence or just for an essential album or two. Pretentiousness is what motivated these artists to set themselves apart, and when looked upon in this light, it is difficult to regard it negatively.
And yet people still do. However, pretentiousness seems only to be an issue/ when an artist falls out of favor. For example, no one talked about how pretentious Tortoise was until they started putting out boring albums. So, Millions Now Living was genius, but Standards was pretentious shit? Both albums were pretentious—Tortoise obviously feels that what they’ve been doing for the last decade is important—it’s just that Standards sucked. Same with ISIS, Melvins, Godspeed: whenever a revered, experimental band releases an album perceived by some to be weak (Oceanic, Hostile Ambient Takeover, Yawnqui Z.z.z.), suddenly said band is pretentious. The word is spat out as readily and as hurriedly as rancid meat. But they weren’t pretentious when releasing Celestial, Ozma or Slow Riot, were they? No, they were inspired! They were irreverent! They were unencumbered by the limits other, lesser artists succumb to! Bullshit. They, like every other band in the history of the universe, just had better ideas within the first five years of being a band and a number of their long time fans didn’t want to admit it. All three of those bands were probably more pretentious at their creative peaks than they are now.
So what does all this have to do with Neurosis, and their new album The Eye of Every Storm? Sadly—for me who wrote and for anyone who read that trickling wet crap above—less than you’d think. Sorry.
Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2004-07-06