It’s a curious coincidence, or perhaps just clever planning, that a year marked by a specious end-times prediction has likewise resulted in an overwhelming batch of apocalyptic music. Doom hangs in the air over a landscape of musicians whose darkened muses have led them to somewhat grim, even bleak inspiration, though more accurately, some unknown and merciful force has summoned the very artists whose works are solely capable of capturing such cataclysmic visions. As 2012 comes closer to its zero hour, it has seen the release of both a two-hour force of celebratory destruction from Swans and the first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album in ten years, which in itself may be a sign of the world collapsing on itself. And as this is being written, Crystal Castles and Scott Walker albums lurk on the horizon. Yet for Neurosis, whose Honor Found in Decay fits comfortably among this team of twisted geniuses, soundtracking doomsday is just another day at the office.
For more than two decades, Oakland’s Neurosis have existed outside of metal’s mainstream as an atmospheric and generally quite terrifying aberration of heavy music. Having begun life as a hardcore band, Neurosis around 1992, with Souls at Zero, began to morph into a sinister tribe of slo-mo pummelers. Finding strength in atmosphere and texture more than riffs or technical prestidigitation, Neurosis’ progression has been slow but constant, ever forward in pursuit of a cleansing, immersive form of graceful doom. And not doom like Candlemass, doom like the sky is going to open up and swallow you whole. No album in recent memory has captured a sense of being slowly lowered into the depths of a volcano like 1996′s Through Silver In Blood, for instance, though its closest competition is most realistically that of another Neurosis album.
Honor Found In Decay, the band’s tenth album, isn’t quite as immediately harrowing as some of their past triumphs, but the lingering doom remains. Recorded once again with Steve Albini, who has engineered all of the band’s albums dating back to 1999′s Times of Grace, Honor is in some respects a simplification of Neurosis’ aesthetic. That doesn’t mean it’s simple, of course. With Neurosis, it rarely is. But there’s a graceful, tempered sensibility about these songs, which speaks to the band’s ability to craft musical monoliths that carry as much beauty as they do raw power. Where a standout track like the opening “We All Rage In Gold” booms with the force of moving tectonic plates, it likewise contains a gothic ambience that peeks through in the form of atonal synth textures, and later grows all the more explicit via breathtaking strings. And the shimmering guitar that opens “At the Well” carries an oblique post-rock chill, briefly sounding more like Talk Talk than one of their much louder analogues, all before the flames begin to rise.
Though Honor Found In Decay isn’t specifically or exclusively concerned with matters of armageddon, death and decay are a central part of the album — it’s all right there in the title, and more or less always has been (see: A Sun That Never Sets, Souls At Zero). Few vocalists can deliver such bleak visions like Scott Kelly can, and his anguished rasp is a keen vessel for observations both chilling and spiritual. A line like “Death was my first companion/ It showed me light and it snuck it out” might read as a somewhat reserved, even Zen take on the necessary cycle of life and death. Yet, being the abstract, intense dude that he is, Kelly likewise incants more abstract, metaphorical prophecy, as if from the words of a metal shaman on “Bleeding the Pigs”: “When the serpent swallows its tail with a half-eaten heart/ The god of reason deserts me and the earth and sky remain.”
Typically lengthy, and characteristically draining, Honor Found In Decay overwhelms as only Neurosis can. Yet after the first six tracks, three of which expand beyond ten minutes apiece, the band closes the album on an unusually succinct high note. “Raise the Dawn” doesn’t quite reach six minutes, but in its relatively brief progression, it distills all of Neurosis’ most amazing traits in a more potent, slightly more accessible package. It’s a fitting cap on a long and powerful paean to death and ruin, and it explodes with all the force in the band’s arsenal. For having celebrated the bleak, ugly, terrifying and dissonant so long, Neurosis never fail to find new ways to do so.
Stream: Neurosis – “We All Rage In Gold”