Doomy post-metal progenitors Neurosis bless us with a new album, and Huck N’ Roll is a sneaky bastard. He sits hunched over in his cubicle at Angry Metal Guy Worldwide Headquarters, noting slyly that Fires Within Fires has not shown up on the review schedule. He waits until he can bear it no longer, then, pretending to be meek and humble, raises his hand and says to the AMG Overlords, “Um, Neurosis? If nobody’s got that, I can take it.” And just like that, he’s binging on the band, sniggering quietly. When Neurosis releases an album it is an event. These guys, more than thirty years into their influential and genre-creating careers, always come up with interesting goods, and the album teaser released earlier in the year was enticing. Will the full album hold up? We sure hope so! Consisting of a mere five songs and 40 minutes, Fires Within Fires is the band’s shortest record in more than 25 years, and there is no room for error at that length.
Opener “Bending Light” kicks in as a slow, doom-ridden dirge, a ponderous beat with atmospheric washes of sound circling and a forlorn guitar lead slowly draining all positivity from your day. The song gradually devolves into ambience, quieter and quieter until once again exploding forth into crushing doom, Scott Kelly entering the fray spewing forth vitriolic lyrics – “The end is endless, and washing over me,” “Peeling the skin away reveals the heart,” and so on. It’s heavy and engaging before ultimately winding down in a swathe of feedback and synth. “A Shadow Memory” and “Fire is the End Lesson” round out the first half of Fires Within Fires, and are equally soul-crushing, following similar templates of anguished vocal delivery, and delicate moments of guitar melodies atop quiet keyboard effects between foreboding movements of doom heaviness.
The intro to “Broken Ground” is a welcome respite from the savagery of the first half of the album, opening with a wave of keyboard patches and a slow, melodic ballad-like progression before Steve Von Till (I presume) begins crooning the lyrics in his deep bass register. After the first verse a tense guitar rhythm begins building and we think “oh god, here it comes again,” and sure enough the band launches back into what we’ve become used to on the record. The epic closer “Reach” is the longest song as well as the most adventurous, effects rippling through the speakers as the band moves along in a trancelike state reminiscent of recent Swans output. Kelly and Von Till duet on this song with disturbing effectiveness. Six minutes go by and one wonders if this song will buck the trend and remain mopey, but heavens no. Patience is rewarded with a demented crescendo, guitars dive-bombing from all directions, Kelly rasping lyrics until ending the album with the single word, “Reach,” in some ways summing up the band’s career arc.
This is an album that begs to be listened to through headphones. In the car or on the stereo Fires Within Fires sounds merely good, but headphones reveal the intricacies of the mix and the arrangements. Noah Landis’ (keyboards, effects) work is subtle throughout, but headphones allow us to hear all of it. Longtime producer Steve Albini has the band firing on all cylinders, and each instrument is presented at its emotional peak. Most impressive is the near-subsonic bottom end of Dave Edwardson, laying a foundation of monolithic proportions in tandem with Jason Roeder’s simple but pummeling drumming. This is Neurosis in the raw, stripped of polish, creating beautifully ugly music. It’s a tossup as to whether or not more would be better, or if the five songs we are left with is exactly what we need. Here at AMG we harp on bands for overstaying their welcomes in both song and album length, but with quality like this I’m not ashamed to buck that trend and insist that one or two more songs would have been most welcome.
Each Neurosis release pushes them in new directions. In this case, Fires Within Fires almost wraps up the band’s history in a succinct, effective, and emotional package. We’ve got some hardcore punk residue, a lot of doom, experimental effects and ambience, and the post-metal excursions the band is sometimes credited with first developing. With the only complaint really being the succinctness of the offering, this is a record that you need to own.