Neurosis’ Through Silver in Blood pushed metal to its limits

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Neurosis Through Silver in Blood

Metal couldn’t provide a proper context for an album like Through Silver in Blood in 1996. That year, Metallica sacrificed their long-flowing locks for a brief stint at alt-rock viability on Load, and albums by the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Korn year emphasized a form of heavy music defined by an entirely different sort of crossover influence. By then metal’s commercial viability had faded fast in the shadow of the post-Nevermind signing binge, and MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball had been pulled off the air by 1995. But in the underground, it was a different story. Something more harrowing was simmering beneath the surface—the sound of apocalypse.

Where bands such as Venom and Mercyful Fate employed Satan as a campy marketing prop, Neurosis pulled listeners straightaway into the abyss. From the opening clanks and squeals of Through Silver in Blood‘s 12-minute title track, the odor of toxic vapors and flames crackling against your skin feel palpable, almost real. Nothing feels familiar or safe, and the once-familiar outside has been replaced by a dangerous and desolate dystopia. The world of Through Silver in Blood is one of a slow-burning terror, built on tense rhythms and gradual evolution, ominously oozing riffs and vocal barks from Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till that convey a menace beyond heavy metal’s until-then flamboyant pageantry. As Von Till said of the album to Rolling Stone, Through Silver in Blood is a “fucking railroad through hell.”

The precedents for Neurosis’ fifth album, as few of them as there are, are largely found on the fringes of popular music. Though the band’s been described as spiritual successors to Black Sabbath—whom they later opened for on Ozzfest—they sound little like them. It carries the slow-moving agony of Swans at their most abrasive, or the industrial-grind nightmares of Godflesh. And of course there are Neurosis’ previous two albums, Souls At Zero and Enemy of the Sun, which found them exploring terrain beyond their roots in Oakland hardcore and pursuing a path of a more slow-moving and almost ritualistic form of heaviness. Through Silver in Blood builds on those albums while perfecting their template, delivering an experience as sonically awe-inspiring as it is emotionally wrenching.

And it asks a lot of the listener. At 71 minutes, it’s a hair shorter than Tool’s Aenima, also released in 1996, but it comprises a sequence of behemoths that find the band employing textural abrasion and unconventional forms of aggression that often upended the rules of heavy music. Where a song like “Eye” is the shortest proper song of the bunch, it’s hardly singles fodder, the song’s structural idiosyncrasies giving keyboardist Noah Landis moments of open space as a canvas to scatter screeching noise and piercing effects. There’s a delicateness to “Strength of Fates” and “Aeon” that suggest a fragile kind of beauty, a spaciousness that feels even more tense than the more obviously aggressive moments, if only because you know the explosion is just over the horizon.

At its most intense, Through Silver in Blood feels like the heaviest album ever recorded. Even now, on its 25th anniversary, it carries an immensity that neither speed nor volume nor custom fuzz pedal could do battle with. Halfway through “Purify,” when the ominously creeping dirge transforms into a furious plummet into the band’s harshest cycle of riffs and Jason Roeder’s pummeling rhythms, it instills a sense of shock and fear at once, jolting the body in the same way a jump scare in a horror movie might, eventually carried out with a funeral procession of bagpipes. But its imagery is bleaker than that, abstract yet traced with outlines of the traumas that underlie its harrowing musical moments: “Purify my hells/ To climb the heavens/ Sacrifice the flesh/ Feeding solar visions.”

Through Silver in Blood sounds like a trip through the nine circles of hell because, on some level, it reflected a more personal hell experienced by its creators. At the time they recorded Through Silver in Blood, the members of Neurosis were in their late twenties, and already nearly a decade into their career. But where their songwriting acumen was at its sharpest, and their vision at its most ambitious, on a personal level they faced deeper internal conflicts. The album, as Von Till reflected on it, is a reflection of “young men struggling with what was going on in their lives—and not necessarily having the healthiest ways of dealing with it all.”

Kelly, at that time, had been experiencing homelessness and struggling with addiction to various drugs. And though he’s long since been sober, he recalls that period being one of his darkest. “My addictions really wreaked havoc on what we were doing as a band, our relationships,” Kelly told Rolling Stone. “That stuff takes over your life. It’s quite the beast.”

In turn, the band poured all the energy within them—positive and negative alike—into building something within their reach but beyond anyone else’s. Listening to Through Silver feels as claustrophobic as it does because the band simply wouldn’t accept anything less than the most intense possible experience they could capture on tape.

“Being young men in our mid-to-late twenties, there’s a lot of shit going on, and life got complicated, and there was a lot of dark, bad shit going on,” Von Till told Machine Music. “I think we pretty consciously focused that music on being as intense as we could. We didn’t want to let up, we didn’t want to let you up for air—or ourselves, for that matter. We were trying to crush it, and everything in our path.”

It’s a physically demanding album, both of the listener and the musicians wrenching these abrasive sounds from their own instruments and exorcising harrowing screams from within their throats. It’s not a commercially friendly album, nor one for which the sometimes oppressive dogmas of heavy music applies. It’s as intense as it is because it had to be—music like this isn’t born of daydreams, but of something deep inside that has to be extracted by force or by will. And it took a deep physical toll on them to make it happen.

“To physically play it is very difficult,” Von Till told Machine Music. “It’s brutal on the body. What we would put our bodies through just to make that music was…not nice.”

That Through Silver in Blood goes to such sonic or psychological extremes doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable or even beautiful at times. It’s awe-inspiring, a testament to the band surpassing their own physical limits as well as those of heavy music itself. It’s become recognized as a landmark album for “post-metal,” a term that didn’t even exist when the album was released, so naturally it had to be invented. More than defining a term or a sound, though, Through Silver in Blood provided a vision of metal or hardcore in which the old rules no longer were sufficient or even satisfactory. Baptized in flame, a new shape of heavy music ascended from the depths.

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