Souls At Zero (Reissue)
Originally released by Alternative Tentacles in 1992 and subsequently reissued in 1999 at the launch of the band’s Neurot Recordings label, Neurosis’ third album, Souls At Zero, is an essential document in an essential catalog. The post-hardcore (though not by the modern genre definition) approach of their first two albums, 1988’s Pain Of Mind and 1991’s The Word As Law, led the seminal Oakland, California, outfit to new ground of sonic experimentation, and Souls At Zero is the first instance of that experimentation made flesh. Not even as assured as they’d be a year later on Enemy Of The Sun, these songs capture a critical moment in the transition of the band. The raw immediacy of their earliest work is still there—you can almost feel the panic coming through the speakers nearly 20 years later on opener “To Crawl Under One’s Skin”—and they leaned heavily on their much-noted Swans influence, but the process of refinement that would result in Neurosis’ later career triumphs was definitely under way.
Like the 2010 Neurot Recordings reissue of Enemy Of The Sun, this new Souls At Zero has been given a visual reinterpretation by Neurosis artist-in-residence Josh Graham. Sound-wise, the disc overall sounds louder and clearer, but that could just as easily be me reading into it as any change mastering/pressing technology improvements have brought about. The guitars of Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till are still distinct, and more present here than in the original is Dave Edwardson’s bass, which does much to thicken out the songs and make moments like the apex of “Sterile Vision” hit with more impact. The balance between the keyboards (then provided by Simon McIlroy, who was replaced by Noah Landis in 1995) and guitars/bass is given careful treatment on that track as well, and on “Stripped” and the chaotic “The Web,” where an underlying layer of noise seems to come through in a way it never did on previous versions of the record. Those who’ve spent significant time with Souls At Zero over the years, either since its original release or previous reissue, will no doubt hear things differently as well. Even if it’s the same album, it’s a new experience of it.
The three bonus cuts included on this version—demos of “Souls” and “Zero” and a live cut, “Cleanse III” from London in 1996—come straight from the 1999 issue, and while their inclusion here is no less welcome now than it was then, it’s Souls At Zero proper that’s the highlight of this release. The track “Takeahnase”—one of the best single songs in the whole of the Neurosis discography—proves no less devastating for the years passed since it was written, and really, the same could be said of the whole album. If Souls At Zero sounds dated anywhere, it’s in the use of samples, and that’s less the fault of Neurosis or the songwriting than the fault of every other band who picked up on the tactic in the ‘90s and made it commonplace. Beyond that, the turmoil, the fiercely controlled chaos and the distinguished emotionality of “Souls” more than stands up to time gone by, and if reviewing this reissue is what’s gotten me to revisit the album, I’m all the gladder for the opportunity. Any day I get to hear Jason Roeder abuse his snare the way he does on “The Web,” I mark a win.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to Neurosis, I’m hardly impartial. I have maybe five “favorite” bands and Neurosis is at least two of them. Mustering whatever objectivity I can, I’ll say that if you’re either a longtime fan, someone who came in at some midpoint in their ascendancy or are just now getting introduced to their body of work, Souls At Zero is an absolutely necessary listen if you’ve never heard it. Completist nerds, for whom this review is basically pointless, will just be happy to have another Neurosis disc, even if it’s one they already have, but Souls At Zero isn’t limited to either novelty or nostalgic values. It’s a crucial piece when it comes to understanding Neurosis’ formidable progression of sound, yes, but it’s also one of the heaviest albums ever recorded and more or less the birth-point of a then-new kind of audio oppressiveness. Nobody before them crushed quite like this.
Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I
At this point, 21 years into a massively influential career (if the band was a person, that person would be able to drink legally), Olympia, Washington drone champions Earth are really only comparable to themselves. Guitarist/bandleader Dylan Carlson, whose work has set more ships sailing than did Helen of Troy, continues ceaselessly to refine and redefine Earth’s sound, working with a range of players and adopting conceptual aesthetics on a by-album basis. Earth’s latest hour-long opus, Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I continues a line of remarkably strong outings, started with the band’s 2005 studio revival, Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method and continued on both the 2007 Hibernaculum EP of re-recorded earlier material and 2008’s brilliant The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull full-length. Fans of those offerings will recognize some elements on Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I, but as ever, Earth have maintained their penchant for subtle sonic shifts that wind up making a huge difference in their overall affect.
Earth’s music is like a sentence that does the work of a paragraph. Joining Carlson on Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I are longtime drummer Adrienne Davies and newcomers Karl Blau on electric bass (Angelina Baldoz will play live) and cellist Lori Goldston, who makes her mark on the album immediately on opener “Old Black.” A rocker by Earth standards, “Old Black” isn’t so far removed from the Americana vibes of Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method, but the bare minimalism of that record is replaced by a fullness of sound brought on by the inclusion of bass and most especially the cello, which runs a naturalistic drone in long-held notes playing beneath the guitar and drums. Goldston runs her own lines for sure, accompanying rather than following Dylan’s guitar as Blau mostly does on bass, and making the songs all the more lush and engaging. The purported concept behind Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I was a partial paean to British acid folk, and listening to “Old Black” or the closing title track, I could almost hear a Sandy Denny-type of voice over the material, though a song like “Father Midnight,” which follows the opener, is most exemplary of Earth’s own work over the last six years.
Like the rest of Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I, “Father Midnight” is extended, time-wise. At 12:11, the song has a hypnotic soundspace all its own apart from the rest of the album, led by Carlson’s repetitive guitar lines. He offers a few lead notes here and there toward the song’s midsection, and that does a lot to make “Father Midnight” feel active, but “Descent to the Zenith” (started with a drum fill by Davies and the shortest track on the record at a mere 7:30) is where Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I really starts to separate itself from its predecessors in Earth’s catalog. Aside from Goldston’s work, already noted as a change in both feel and affect, Blau’s basslines add a soft physicality to the music that comes across on “Descent to the Zenith,” and perhaps that’s because it’s on “Descent to the Zenith” that Blau pulls farthest away from what Carlson’s playing, making it so that the track has almost three movements happening at the same time. That may not sound all that outlandish, but this is Earth we’re talking about. The sultans of stillness! Sure, the song remains soft, slow and sweetly melodic, but there’s a lot going on as well, Carlson’s guitar issuing effects waves toward the end in a relative build that soon capsizes and fades out.
The momentum continues through “Hell’s Winter,” which is probably Davies’ hardest-hitting performance on Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I (again, speaking relatively). Carlson returns to his leadership role with Blau and Davies following his lines, and Goldston provides suitable foil again. As the album shifts between shorter and longer tracks—it goes under 10 minutes, then over, then under, then over, before hitting the 20-plus-minute title-cut—the structure is well revealed by the time “Hell’s Winter” comes on, and the scope Earth are working with is established, the fourth track doing more to affirm than revise the impression given by the three songs prior. If there’s revolution yet to come, it’s in the form of “Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I,” which takes a minute of orchestral warm-up before getting started in earnest. Carlson steps back and Blau and Goldston set the initial course of the song, which runs through several different movements and boasts a complexity of arrangement that outmatches everything else Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I has to offer.
They are the masters of their craft, and listening to “Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I,” it sounds like they’ve started to believe it. There’s a stateliness in the performances here—and yes, I’m acknowledging that the classical element of the cello is a part of this—that Earth haven’t ever really shown before. Even as the song’s final moments ring out to their close, Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I (which was produced by Stuart Hallerman, who handled the band’s 1993 classic Earth 2), Earth sound not only mature, but completely assured of both their legacy and their current, constantly-progressing direction. Carlson’s guitar is as hypnotic as ever, but as Earth have made known over the better part of the last decade, their sound is much more than just sustained notes and drones. As they enter 2011, Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I finds the band as unwilling as ever to settle creatively, toying with titular contradiction, fostering a previously-unheard richness of tone and taking their rightful place at the head of their genre. The bees, indeed, have made their honey.
If that’s not enough verbiage for you, hit up JJ Koczan’s blog at TheObelisk.net. firstname.lastname@example.org.