The spirituality of iconoclastic metal band Neurosis

Jul 26, 2017 at 1:00 am

To listen to the music of metal band Neurosis is to surrender — surrendering to heaviness, to being pummeled with emotion through sound, to being carried away beyond space and time. To see Neurosis is to welcome this furious intensity most expressly; the experience is a commitment.

That word, commitment, is also a perfect encapsulation of a band that just saw its 30-year anniversary in 2015, has maintained the same lineup for more than two decades, and is still fresh off the release of its eleventh studio album — last year's Fires Within Fires, released on their own label Neurot Recordings (another example of commitment, this one to DIY practices and business ethics). Fires Within Fires is music that extends far beyond metal, wrapping around ideas from folk, ambient, industrial, and psychedelic music to create something deeply, painfully, and beautifully their own.

Neurosis sprang out of the '80s hardcore punk scene in Oakland, Calif., but within a few years the band's style had evolved into a singular form of dark, heavy, uncompromising music they are still finding new ways to explore to this day. Since 1995, the core lineup has been guitarist and vocalist Steve Von Till, guitarist and vocalist Scott Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson, keyboardist Noah Landis, and drummer Jason Roeder.

Neurosis elevated the concept of heaviness to an art form — one that, although it often is, didn't necessarily need to be brutal in order to convey that heaviness. The breadth of their influences shows this; a short list includes everyone from Swans and Amebix to Hawkwind and Hank Williams.

At one point, a sixth member controlled visuals during their shows, which added yet another layer to the immersive Neurosis live experience on top of the earthshaking music and unnerving samples, but that component was officially retired in 2012. That's another hallmark of Neurosis — when something is done, it's done. This is not a band with a soft spot for nostalgia.

"Forward-moving" is an expression guitarist Von Till uses to describe the band's approach, and it's not hard to see its truth when considering their musical output: 1992's Souls at Zero changed the landscape of modern metal forever with total destruction of genre expectations; 2001's A Sun That Never Sets delved even further into experimentation with an embrace of folk influences; 2004's The Eye of Every Storm, while as massive as everything else they've done, is downright quiet at times, even merciful.

The band visited Detroit in 2015 — its first time back in the city since the '90s — but expansive tours of this nature have been a rare treat in recent years. These days, the members are scattered across the United States with families and day jobs; it's not easy to get to certain parts of the country, making us very lucky indeed to have the opportunity to see them again only two years later, especially at a time when old songs rediscovered for their 30th anniversary are still fresh in their minds (and bones).

In advance of the show, Von Till (who remembers getting tattooed during tour stops in Detroit on two separate occasions in the '90s) took time to speak with us about their most recent work, his evolution as a guitarist, and the role of spirituality in the music, among other things.

Metro Times: Tell me about Fires Within Fires.

Steve Von Till: That album felt like a gift from the universe as a 30th anniversary present. It sounds goofy but it really came like that. We live quite far apart, we don't rehearse, we don't get together very often. ... I think it was February 2015, we realized we had a weekend available. Instead of booking gigs, even though we had no riffs and nothing we were working on, we decided to get together and see what would happen. By the time that Sunday rolled around, we had the skeleton for that entire record, within a matter of 48 hours. It felt really powerful, perfect, and blessed just the way it was. We got together once before we recorded it, just to fine-tune and arrange it, but it was basically there, right from the beginning. That had never really happened to us before. Bits and pieces of certain songs here and there, but not an entire work.

MT: What has shaped you as a guitarist and songwriter?

Von Till: In Neurosis, I don't think we feel like we're songwriters so much as channelers. Neurosis is a driven beast. I can't sit and write a song for Neurosis. I can generate interesting riffs and sonic ideas or concepts to discuss but it only really takes shape when we find the time and space to surrender to the bigger energy, the thing that's bigger than us as individuals, where each person has their own unique input and where we go through the process of creation and destruction. Nothing is sacred until it's on tape. We take turns speaking for what we feel the spirit of the music is demanding from us, and it takes shape in different ways.

As far as a guitarist [laughs], I often joke that I'm probably a worse guitarist now than I was before, as far as traditional chops, because I've only been playing this strange music my entire adult life. And it's only been with these dudes in this style. If you're sitting and jamming some classic rock or blues, I wouldn't know what to do. I can make noise and sound on anything given the right opportunity, a sledgehammer and an oil drum or whatever, but as far as skills, I think I've become increasingly idiosyncratic, which probably contributes to a lot of originality and unique approaches to things, but it's also probably limiting in a traditional sense. I always think it might be nice to force myself to learn other people's music just to make my fingers do different things.

MT: I read that you, at least at one point, called your rig the "chain of death."

Von Till: That's actually not true, necessarily. I said it once and it caught on but it wasn't by any means supposed to be a pet name or anything. I like finding ways to completely destroy and mutate a perfectly good guitar signal. I like to be able to have clean, really nice, classic, beautiful warm tones, and piano and bell-like stuff when I need it, and more traditional hard rock and heavy tones as well, but I spend a lot of time and effort trying to make things sound perfectly broken. That's probably what I meant, the mutating and destruction of signals which is part of the joy I get out of guitar gear, finding combinations of things that cause that unique fluctuation between dissonance and harmony.

MT: Do you have anything that you use that is not normally a part of someone's rig?

Von Till: Probably the most unusual stuff I have is the fact that I don't have pickup selectors on my guitars. I run both pickups out of a stereo cable and I choose my pickup signal based on a custom audio electronics switcher rig built by Bob Bradshaw. That's another thing, the custom audio electronics switching allows me to make a lot of choices on a lot of things with a single touch of a button, not having to tap dance around all my pedal boards because I have a lot of shit going on in there. I've always used two amps, all the time. Several different channels on one amp and several different pedals on the other amp and different combinations of dirt which are unique to each of the two.

MT: On a very broad level, what would you say has been an unconventional influence on Neurosis?

Von Till: It depends on how you look at it. The world, and the way we grew up, and the things that we were interested in, it all just makes perfect sense and is totally conventional. Of course we would be inspired equally by nature, film, psychology, shamanism, psychedelics, punk rock, Black Sabbath, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division — it all makes sense to us. It's either all unconventional, or it's all standard from whatever your perspective is. We're influenced and inspired by everything we see and hear. And trying to never limit ourselves. When we were coming up, it was a time in independent music when, to us, what it meant to be punk rock or to be DIY meant "fuck you." We do what we want, but then it turned out that every little genre had rules and blinders on about what was acceptable. When we got keyboards, people just shit, like 'What? You can't have keyboards in heavy music.' I'm like, 'What are you talking about? [Laughs.] Joy Division's not heavy? Throbbing Gristle's not heavy? Deep Purple's not heavy? [Laughs.]'

MT: What is your spiritual relationship to the music?

Von Till: If I could put that into words, I'd be a writer, not a musician. It's really difficult to explain. It's a feeling. It's an emotion. It's everything all at once. It's everything within and outside of ourselves. It's everything within and outside of the Earth. It's the entire human experience, from the macro lens to the personal trials and tribulations, traversing our way through that maze in myriad different ways, and really it becomes surrendering to this sonic wave of purification, a way to cope with all those thoughts and feelings and move past the mundane for a while.

Neurosis plays St. Andrew's Hall with Converge and Amenra on Saturday, July 29; Doors at 7 p.m.; St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit;; $27.50 and up.