Psychotic Reaction

Still committed to "annihilate all weak riffs," Oakland's Neurosis has gotten subtle but not soft

Everything about Oakland's Neurosis is overwhelming. The sextet's latest album, Times of Grace, is built around the suffocating sheets of guitars, impenetrable keyboards, tribal rhythms, and cathartic screams that have long been the trademark of its epic, sonically saturated heavy rock. Likewise, its stimuli-overload live shows are assaults of sound, film, lights, and physical energy. But while the band is sticking with its iconoclastic and bombastic approach, some things have changed. Neurosis' first album in almost three years finds the group stripping away its hardened exterior and thick strata of guitars to reveal some musical subtleties squirming underneath.

The changes become clear immediately on the record. Opening with an ominous sway of guitars, cello, tuba, and a thumping kettledrum, the band hints at some of the melodic interludes to come before leaping headlong into the crushing guitar chug of "The Doorway." Jason Roeder's blasting drums envelop the churn of guitars and guttural vocals. Soon, singer/guitarists Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly lunge into a queasy wobble, tugged by a cello and Dave Edwardson's submerged bass.

Some longtime fans may think the band's new creative tinkerings represent a divorce from the aesthetics that made Neurosis the Bay Area's most imposing gutter-metal act. But according to Von Till, the adjustments are simply a move forward. "I think it's the next point in our evolution," he explains. "We let it breathe a lot more. Our sound was so dense on our other albums that sometimes it just got overwhelming -- which was our intention at the time. Now we're trying to get something a little more clear and pure, while still taking the aggression to the next step."

Which isn't the same thing as saying Neurosis has gone soft. While the band's previous albums mixed the gnawing guitar up front, often forcing the rhythm section into the background, Times of Grace, in the hands of engineer Steve Albini, pulls the group's dynamic lulls and rhythmic power to the forefront. So not only does Times of Grace sound clearer than previous works, it also displays a brisk balance of melody, rhythm, and thundering heft. Roeder's snare drum cracks like shotgun fire, and cymbals erupt alongside the shuddering fuzz of the distinctly separated guitars and additional orchestral textures. "We've already proven that we can be a relentless steamroller," says Von Till. "It's time to let some of our other abilities shine through."

As Times of Grace finds Neurosis deliberately tinkering with its proven formula, perhaps an even more striking challenge to the band's sound is the companion album issued by Neurosis' alter ego, the tribal-ambient Tribes of Neurot. Simply titled Grace, the companion CD will be officially released in July -- although copies are available through the band's Neurot Recordings Web site. While both discs are stand-alone recordings, Grace was intended to be played simultaneously with Neurosis' Times of Grace for optimum rupture and rapture. "We wanted to attempt to make a textural experimental album with the same exact ebb and flow of energy, dynamics, and emotion as Times of Grace, but from our other perspective," Von Till explains. "So, in a sense, we're doing the album twice. They interweave and dynamically play off of each other."

In either case, however, the approach is the same. "Each song has to make people feel something," says Von Till. "Once we have our basic outline, we tear it to shreds and rethink what we've made in order to strengthen it." In choosing the characteristically raw recording approach of Albini, the band was able to concentrate on capturing the intensity of its well-honed live show. Albini's live-in-the-studio recording method marked a shift from Neurosis' recent albums, which favored studio-sweetening and overdubbing layers as a replacement for sonic clarity; "One thing we don't need in our mix is mud," as Von Till puts it.

For his part, Albini doesn't believe he had much influence on the record, but rather that the band shared his notion that the recording process should reflect a group's natural live sound. "It's an odd affectation that producers make bands do things differently in the studio than they do every time they get together," says Albini. He notes that Neurosis' strength is as a live band, and that "putting them in the studio and not letting them behave that way would be a mistake."

Albini is both criticized and praised for the similar sonic stamp his techniques and equipment lend to bands he records, from Bush to Nirvana to the Pixies. And perhaps because of the deliberate production choices made for Times of Grace, as well as its songwrit-ing adjustments, Albini once again came under fire; some fans speculated that perhaps Neurosis became so self-conscious of the album's restraint that the band decided to craft the Tribes of Neurot CD to dress up Times of Grace's less saturated sound. "The concept of [Times of Grace] was to present the stuff as a performance and have it be what Neurosis really sounds like," Albini insists. "If they started getting itchy after the fact, no one ever mentioned that to me. It doesn't seem like them to get cold feet -- they're very strong-willed people."

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