Bagpipes is a new one, even for me. The way that those familiarly reedy, stoic and solemn tones fill an ambient interlude from the din of ‘At The Well’, the 10 minute plus second track of Neurosis’s ninth studio album, is oddly fitting, even if it does reek a little of ‘well guys, there is one thing we haven’t done yet…’. Then again, for an act that revere Pink Floyd as much as the Oakland based post-metal pioneers and genre stalwarts do, perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, even if the results are a little more the Piper at the Gates of A Final Apocalyptic Dusk than The Piper At The Gates of Dawn.
Yet despite Neurosis’s role as the centrepiece and reigning godfathers of a now well established scene, it’s hard to see their patronage of an instrument more commonly associated with suicidal charges of the guns and men in skirts(sorry, kilts) catching on. Then again, it’s not surprising that they’re the ones to try it. The core lineup of Neurosis formed in 1989, which saw them eschew their Cali crustpunk roots for something a little more expansive, has now spent over 20 years together. It’s been a fruitful period: eight albums, a record label, a curator’s gig in charge of Roadburn Festival and an abundance of offshoots and side projects. And whilst no-one can deny that Neurosis have lost any energy, it’s become increasingly obvious that the bite found in earlier works, has evaporated somewhat. In short, Honor Found In Decay was never likely to threaten the Nineties 1-2-3 gut punch of Enemy of the Sun, Through Silver in Blood and Times of Grace, three albums which did as much to expand metal minds as any produced in the last 30 years. That’s not why I’m reviewing it, and that’s not why you’ll be buying it.
The quiet-loud-very loud-deafening formula certainly remains as potent as ever. For all their Floydish psychedelic sensibilities, Neurosis are an oddly disciplined group in terms of their songwriting, which rarely strays from the template. Whereas past records grafted cello or electronics onto their apocalyptic compositions, Honor Found In Decay sticks (for the most part) to simpler templates: warlike drum beats, gigantic riffs, searing guitar effects and those once groundbreaking ambient interludes.
All three of those are present and correct throughout the record’s opener in impressive form. ‘We All Rage in Gold’ is Neurosis by numbers, a six minute paean to a bloody deed, spiralling around a pummelling riff that doesn’t so much ebb and flow as it crashes against the rocks and retreats only to swell up again, more monstrous than before. Scott Kelly’s roaring his trademark heartfelt nonsense, but he’s struggling to be heard above the instrumental storm behind him with such throaty seadog venom that even a line like "l walk into the water/To wash the blood from my feet" can be forgiven. Neurosis in full throe really are a force of nature, their intensity and precision bettered/battered perhaps only by their forebears Swans and their nephews Isis, the latter of whom stole several pages from Neurosis’ rulebook.
And like Aaron Turner’s Isis, Neurosis have consistently stuck to their guns in favour of seeking something radically new, releasing fine album after fine album, finetuning, refining and distilling their output, but never radically altering the algorithm. The gamelan outro on closer ‘Raise the Dawn’, the snarling squall of sudden deafening guitar that explodes the final act of ‘Bleeding the Pigs’, the whispered spoken word samples dotted throughout - all are variants on time-honoured tricks, perfected over many years.
It’s not hard to see how the familiarity might breed a certain contempt amongst listeners. Each deafening final drop is eminently foreseeable to the very beat, each ambient wash pleasantly appears exactly when you expect it to. Everything really is in its right place, even too right. There’s none of the elementary chaos that roams, say, The Seer, but that’s probably fine: this is a Neurosis record, and the accompanying sheet music might as well be printed on the cover for all the surprises there were likely to be. This record feels much like their previous four: intense and emotional without a doubt, but above all else a finely distilled variant of their trademark sound.
One area where the contempt has started to seep through is the production, the last four Neurosis records having been recorded at Electrical Audio in Chicago in the arms of Steve Albini. Personally, I’ve never been all in on Albini as a producer – as much as he can make an average band sound like the best thing since Fugazi (Cloud Nothings, anyone?) it would’ve been interesting to hear someone else take the helm here. Here, his ‘rawness’ seems to take something out of the record at times, notably the percussion which can feel light and hollow when drowned out by the walls of (admittedly wonderful sounding) guitar sound. How much this is down to Albini and how much to the band themselves is clearly anyone’s guess, but certainly, the listener is entitled to wonder how the record might have sounded had, say, Converge’s Kurt Ballou been sat behind the desk, given his current stellar run of form.
But in principal this is another finely crafted record in the vein of much that has been released by Neurosis since 2000. The problem is that what sounded so exciting during that vital three album run identified earlier was never going to have the same impact today. It’s as though Neurosis stood still while the rest of the world kept turning: indeed, that’s part of the appeal. There’s craft and passion embedded even in the lost by-the-numbers quasi orchestral post metal swells which lends the album a careworn sort of emotion – it’s an antique table in a sea of Ikea lookalikes, the genuine article wrought and perfected by hand rather than mass produced from Indonesian rainforest.
It’s an odd thing to say, but Honor Found In Decay has a value that seems to go beyond the music itself. It’s almost as though the ephemeral ‘Neurosis-ness’ of the album, the very parts that make it so predictable, is what makes it so enjoyable. Neurosis have attained the position of the grandees of post-metal, and provided they continue to consistently produce records of such obvious quality, no matter how homogeneous and self derivative they may sound, it’s hard to see them giving up that crown any time soon.
7Philip Bloomfield's Score