"This is something we've been wanting to do for ages, one of those dreams you're not sure you can really put together when you're touring your ass off all the time," says Neurosis vocalist/guitarist Steve Von Till from the San Jose office of the band's label, Neurot Recordings. In the past two years, the Neurosis collective has transitioned from a touring machine to a home-based cottage industry, recording and releasing the music of Neurosis, its offshoots, and like-minded contemporaries. Beyond the Pale is the result. "We're just throwing this festival out there," Von Till explains, "[as] a statement about where we think music comes from: from the heart and soul."
For the festival, which runs this Thursday through Sunday at the Great American Music Hall, the members of Neurosis corralled a world-class lineup of artists, including Chicago indie rock heavyweights Shellac, longtime New York underground fixture M. Gira, stalwart Japanese pummel trio Zeni Geva, and legendary Manchester sound experimentalists :zoviet*france:. Neurosis and Shellac headline Fri-day and Saturday nights, with various solo acts and Neurosis faves scattered throughout the festival. There's a definite arc to the four-day schedule, with more austere, experimental nights bookending two nights of high bludgeon.
According to Von Till, "beyond the pale" is a phrase that originated as a description of parts of Britain outside of English rule. "It kind of meant, "Out with the barbarians, the riffraff, the scum.' So it's out there on the barbaric fringe, the lunatic fringe. That's what this music represents: It's the stuff that is outside of the norm." While, at first glance, the bands on the bill vary from mellifluous chamber music to over-the-top bluster and bombast, Von Till argues that the artists are tied together by a common thread. "There's a certain intensity, a certain element of primal nature -- darkness, aggression, self-reflection. That's definitely where we're coming from, hosting this [festival]. Music has to have some sort of edge or deeper, thought-provoking element for me to enjoy it. A catchy tune is not enough."
Since their mid-'80s punk beginnings in Oakland, the members of Neurosis have steadily expanded their sonic palette, consistently defining the cutting edge of heavy music by incorporating a wide range of elements like cellos, Moog, and samples. When side projects and insect noise tracks began to pile up, the group formed Neurot Recordings to better pursue back-burnered ideas and give an outlet to similarly inclined musicians. "We have an infinite amount of projects -- Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot, solo related ideas and collaborations -- that'll keep us busy for a lifetime, and we just need a home base for it all," explains Von Till. "We know we're putting out strange music, so we're not expecting the world. But I think people will take note, because there's something different going on here."
Beyond the Pale was a natural outgrowth of this desire to promote the Neurosis musical worldview, a way to bring everyone together for a big Neurot-ic party. And when the time came to pick the keynote group, Shellac was a no-brainer. The rare Bay Area appearances of the autonomous Chicago trio, led by infamous indie kingpin Steve Albini, are a guaranteed draw. That Neurosis had recorded with Albini in the past, as had other Beyond the Pale participants like Oxbow and Zeni Geva, helped convince the festival-resistant Shellac members to participate. "They actually had to overcome a natural reluctance on our part as a band," Albini says from his Chicago studio, Electronic Audio Recording. "We don't normally get involved in festivals. We've only played at a few of them, and, with one exception [All Tomorrow's Parties in England], the festivals that we've played at have been kind of unpleasant. People are there for sort of a laissez-faire weekender or something; the music is just sort of the backdrop to the experience. Specifically curated festivals like [Beyond the Pale] or All Tomorrow's Parties -- those are a different kettle of fish. It's not as much about people hanging out in a tent for a couple of days, watching whoever happens to be on tour at the moment, as it is about getting a sampling of someone else's genuine taste."
The first night of the festival is acoustic instrument-oriented, with performances by Von Till, fellow Neurosis guitarist Scott Kelly, local string ensemble and Neurosis collaborators Amber Asylum, and M. Gira of Angels of Light. Von Till says the members of Neurosis have been fans of Gira's musical output since his early '80s work with Swans, a group that influenced many of the Beyond the Pale participants. "I think his music has grown the way our musical taste has grown," Von Till says of Gira. "In a lot of ways, they reflect and parallel: from the anger and the intensity of the early days to the psychedelic and tranced-out stuff, then stripping it down to something more personal." Gira, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek e-mail, notes that his "mutual appreciation society" with Neurosis has gone on for years, and claims he doesn't fit in with the festival lineup at all. "I'm regressive, old fashioned, and completely unmusical," Gira self-deprecates. "Still, the young boys and girls enjoy watching an old man fail."
On Friday, Zeni Geva and the Bay Area's own Oxbow open for Neurosis and Shellac. Saturday brings Isis, a relatively young quintet from Boston, and Thrones, the one-man assault unit of former Melvins bassist Joe Preston, to the stage. Von Till says these nights are meant to showcase different approaches to heavy rock music, from the one-guy-playing-through-a- mountain-of-electronics mania of Thrones to the bluesier, disturbed perspective of Oxbow. "And Isis, they've really grown into something powerful in the last couple years," Von Till says of the group. In a sense Isis is following in the footsteps of Neurosis, incorporating new ideas and aesthetics into the sometimes self-limiting genre of heavy rock. "I would like to think that Isis fits in with that idea," responds guitarist/ vocalist Aaron Turner, "in that we are a band from a hardcore/metal background, but we stretch out beyond those limitations, incorporating a lot of other ideas into our sound."
One of the coups of the festival occurs the final night, with the first U.S. appearance in a decade by audio groundbreakers :zoviet*france:. The group, which is considered seminal in both the ambient and experimental realms, was chosen to headline with Neurosis' experimental side project Tribes of Neurot on the strength of a recommendation by local drone act Tarentel (which is also playing that night). Von Till confirms that the :zoviet*france: presentation will be performed by a single founding member (another member reportedly will be in the Canadian Arctic Circle and unable to attend), but it should be an intriguing sound deconstruction nonetheless. "He was very interested in the specs of the sound system, so I imagine he wants to do something that sounds huge."
Von Till says that he's happy with how quickly the festival came together and that the Neurosis crew hopes to make it some sort of annual event. But he balks at the suggestion of taking it on the road. "The thought's crossed our minds, but that'd be a whole other nightmare. We're going to see if we can make it a success around here, and then we'll see. The thing is, we wanted to make it something so unique and special that people would come here for it and we wouldn't have to take it somewhere else."
"I would challenge anybody to find a more interesting four days of music within several thousand miles," he continues. "I think people can expect to have their minds blown by more good music than they've seen in a long time. I really can't wait. It's all my fucking favorite bands, and they're coming to play our festival. I'm ecstatic about it."
Of course, there are those who would find Beyond the Pale about as fun as a four-day root canal. Shellac's Albini recommends they go elsewhere. "I wouldn't dream of trying to convince somebody to go," he says matter-of-factly. "I think these are bands that have their own unique merits, and people who are amenable to this aesthetic will go and enjoy themselves. People who aren't should stay home and do something that they enjoy."
Oxbow vocalist Eugene Robinson -- notorious for his provocative, unsettling onstage demeanor -- would go so far as to warn people away from the spectacle. "They should stay far, far away. I mean if they knew what was good for them. Which they don't. Or they never seem to. Some people are just drawn to trouble -- the poison mushroom, the frayed toaster wire, the hitchhiker -- these are the ones that you'll find there."