One such group is Tool, the ritual laden, psychedelic alternative metal outfit of whom I've written much more on here. While Tool managed to acquire a suspicious amount of mainstream success in the 1990s an even more ritualistic act that inevitably had an enormous on Tool was churning out some of the most groundbreaking albums of the decade. They go by the name of Neurosis and for nearly two decades they've managed not just to push he bounds of metal but rock 'n' roll itself and what it's capable of in terms of both sound and performance.
In the Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll Christopher Knowles offered a most compelling theory concerning the nature of rock 'n' roll. In that work he wrote:
"Over time, I'd come to realize that rock 'n' roll is in fact the direct descendant of the Mysteries, which had evolved and adapted to suit the needs and customs of postwar American secular culture.
"What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of the time did not? Almost exactly what rock 'n' roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A personal connection to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of everyday life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night."
Knowles is of course referring to the Mystery religions, those ancient cults largely based around the Mediterranean that have fascinated, puzzled and shocked modern researchers in equal measures for decades. Knowles effectively argues that rock 'n' roll is a modern manifestation of the Mysteries, transferred to us from antiquity via the Collective Unconscious. I tentatively agree with Knowles' conclusions but increasingly I see rock 'n' roll as a reappearance of something even more ancient than the Mysteries. At it's best and purest rock has gone even further back than the initiated-priest dominated Mysteries to a faith at its most primitive and shamanistic. Few groups have captured this raw spirituality as effectively as Neurosis though many have tried.
Over the course of two decades Neurosis has had such a vast influence that they've spawned their own subgerne: post-metal. Further, their mind-bending, shamanistic spirituality combined with uber heavy riffs and brutal vocals spurred some of the most innovative and unique metal of the past-decade: Mastadon, Kylesa and the great Yob, among others, have added their own distinct take on Neurosis' esoteric music but they've never quite reached their heights. I suspect Neurosis will usher in what will become a third decade of brilliance on October 30, 2012, when they release their eleventh full length studio album, Honor Found in Decay. With that date fast approaching it seems as good a time as any to more closely examine one of the most unique and influential bands of the past twenty-five years.
|the new album|
Neurosis was founded in Oakland, California in 1985. They originally began as a three-piece hardcore punk band comprised of Scott Kelly (guitar and vocals), Dave Edwardson (bass), Jason Roeder (drums). In 1986 they added Chris Salter on second guitar. Salter dropped out of the group in 1989 and was replaced by Steve Von Till (guitar and vocals). These four individuals are still in Neurosis and have served as it's core for over 20 years.
Neurosis' first two albums, Pain of Mind (1988) and Word as Law (1990), were thrash/hardcore hybrids that were not well received. After Law they began to change both their sound and live performances, moving away from their thrash and hardcore roots while embracing the emerging sludge and doom metal scenes. Their songs were now built around slow and massively heavy guitar riffs punctured by the occasional feedback laden lead and sometimes driven by tribal sounding beats. Both Kelly and Von Till would split vocal duties (with it often being impossible to tell them apart), which largely consisted of brutal, crust punk influenced vocals with Emerson occasionally adding some near death metal-style backup vocals. The vocals can be hard to take but increasingly I seem them as essential to the primal state Neurosis' music strives for.
As the 90s rolled along, progressive, dark ambient, industrial, and even folk influences would be incorporated into Neurosis' signature sound. They also added a full time keyboard player (originally Simon McIlroy and later Noah Landis) that would use both conventional parts as well as bizarre synthesizers and samples. Neurosis would also begin to employ a host of additional instruments such as flutes, violins, and even bagpipes from time to time.
Live, they began to add a whole multimedia onslaught. Beginning in 1990 they added a visual artist, Adam G. Kendall, to perform live with the group. He was later replaced by Pete Inc in 1993 and in 2000 Inc was replaced by Scott Graham, who still holds the job to this day. Much of the lighting and visuals Neurosis employs live is of an experimental and psychedelic nature. For the tour of 1996's Through Silver in Blood much of the imagery used live derived from Ken Russell's uber-trippy cult classic Altered States, for instance.
All of this would lend a highly ritualistic and even religious aspect to Neurosis' music. In a 2007 interview with the U.K. Guardian guitarist/vocalist Von Till would remark:
"When you learn to surrender to something bigger than yourself, you're acknowledging the realm of spirit – and where else does music come from? I have no idea, but it feels like it's not just deep in the core of us, but deep within the core of the Earth, the stars and everything else."The pivotal point for Neurosis was in the early 1990s around the time they released their landmark Souls at Zero album when they began to realize the full potential of their music. In the same Guardian interview Von Till stated:
"I think [1992 album] Souls at Zero was when the music became something else. It was taking that material out on the road and losing ourself in the trance states induced by playing hypnotic, super-heavy loud music that we really figured out how to surrender to it. Then we said, OK – this is going to take us to where we wanna go: somewhere deeper, somewhere more emotional, somewhere elemental."
|Von Till live|
Souls at Zero is very much an album centered around spiritual exploration. The opening track, "To Crawl under One's Skin" begins with a spoken word sample that warns the listener: "To go on the mythic journey into your own self, it's not that you might meet conflict, it's that you will." From there a montage of what sounds like samples taken of various televangelists hypnotize the listener until the actual song starts. From there the conflict begins in earnest as harsh vocals recount the pain of true spiritual aspirations in a world that has no use for them.
As the album unfolds Neurosis presents a world spiritually void and drowning in warfare and materialism. A struggle is present throughout the songs to hold on to something pure amidst the endless onslaught of the modern world. In "A Chronology for Survival" the lyrics command the listener to hold their ground against all odds:
The artwork of Souls at Zero is justifiably considered classic and laden with rich occult symbolism. The front depicts a wicker man within an ouroboros, a loaded image if ever there was one. In ancient times wicker men/giants primarily appeared in Celtic countries and were burned on major fire festivals, most notably the eve of May Day and the night of Halloween (which makes the release date for Neurosis' latest album all the more apt). In modern times the wicker giants have gained more than a little notoriety due to the role they played in Celtic human sacrifices.
"The following seem to have been the main outlines of the custom. Condemned criminals were reserved by the Celts in order to be sacrificed to the gods at a great festival which took place once every five years. The more there were off such victims, the greater was believed to be the fertility of the land. If there were not enough criminals to furnish victims, captives taken in war were immolated to supply the deficiency. When the time came the victims were sacrificed by the Druids or priests. Some they shot down with arrows, some they impaled, and some they burned alive in the following manner. Colossal images of wicker-work or of wood and grass were constructed; these were filled with live men, cattle, and animals of other kinds; fire was then applied to the images, and they were burned with their living contents."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pgs. 745-746)
Interestingly, Frazer believes that the wicker giants represented a kind of religious corruption that was latter incorporated into Medieval Christianity: namely, the witch burnings:
"If we are right in interpreting the modern European fire-festivals as attempts to break the power of witchcraft by burning or banning the witches and warlocks, it seems to follow that we must explain the human sacrifices of the Celts in the same manner; that is, we must suppose that the men whom the Druids burnt in wicker-work images were condemned to death on the ground that they were witches or wizards, and that the mode of execution by fire was chosen because, as we have seen, burning alive is deemed the surest mode of getting rid of these noxious and dangerous beings... One advantage of explaining the ancient Celtic sacrifices in this way is that it introduces, as it were, a harmony and consistency into the treatment which Europe has meted out to witches from the earliest times down to about two centuries ago, when the growing influence of rationalism discredited the belief in witchcraft and put a stop to the custom of burning witches. On this view the Christian Church in its dealings with the black arts merely carried out the traditional policy of Druidism, and it might be a nice question to decide which of the two, in pursuance of that policy, exterminated the larger number of innocent men and women."Frazer's comparison of the religious persecutions by both the Christian Church and Druidism is compelling in the context of Souls at Zero when we consider that the wicker man on the cover appears inside of an ouroboros.
(ibid, pgs. 748-749)
"The serpent biting its tail into the shape of a circle, a break with its linear development which would seem to mark as big a change as emergence upon a higher level of existence, a level of celestial or spiritualized existence, symbolized by the circle. The serpent thus transcends the plane of brute life to move forward in the direction of the most basic living impulses. This explanation, however, depends upon the symbolism of the circle, the image of celestial perfection. An opposite image may be conjured up by the serpent biting its tail, ceaselessly revolving around itself enclosed within its own cycle... As one condemned never to escape its own cycle and raise itself to a higher plane, the ouroboros symbolizes eternal return, the endless cycle of rebirth and a continual repetition which betrays the dominance of a basic death-wish."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 728-729)
Both above explanations could be applied to Souls at Zero. On the one hand the album can be seen as chronicling an attempt to 'transcend the plane of brute life" by achieving a higher state of being. On the other hand the pairing of the ouroboros and the wicker man could indicate that the search for a higher plane of being will always be foiled by the endless cycle of religious persecution, be it pagan or Christian.
The theme of a brutal and corrupt opposition against pure spirituality would continue throughout the rest of Neurosis' 90s albums. With 1994's Enemy of the Sun album Neurosis seemed to introduce a Crowley-ian concept of stellar, lunar and solar cults in which the former two have been in conflict with the latter. Of this conflict, Crowley disciple Kenneth Grant wrote:
"The Cult of Sumer represents the initiated Stellar Tradition as it was carried out of Egypt, where the pre-eval Cult Set characterized the religious modes of the dark dynasties. These were the dynasties whose monuments were mutilated and sacrificed by the adherents of the later Solar cults who abhorred all reminders of the sabean origins of their theology.
"The desecrators of the Star and Moon cults were the Osirians, later represented by the Christians, who, in their fierce persecution of the Gnostic, played a role analogous to that of the Solarites against the Draconians."By album's end Neurosis has seemingly traced religion back to it's very origins with the tribal onslaught that is "Cleanse," the album closer in which all kinds of percussion is employed to invoke some type of ritual. I wrote a bit before here on this album so I shall not delve further into it.
(The Magical Revival, pg. 70-71)
Plus, this gives me even more space to focus on one of the most esoteric albums of all times. 1996's Through Silver in Blood is considered by many fans to be Neurosis' finest hour and they may well be right. The album also happens to be one of Neurosis' most explicitedly occult lyrically. Even the title itself is riddled with meaning. It seemingly alludes to the conflict between lunar and solar cults as well.
"In the scale of correspondences between metals and planets, silver relates to the Moon and belongs to a symbolic scheme, or chain, linking Moon to Water to female principle. Traditionally gold, the active, male, solar, diurnal and fiery principal, is opposed to silver, the passive, female, lunar, watery and cold principle."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 882)
|an alchemical symbol for silver showing it to be interchangeable with the moon|
Silver can also be symbolic of Divine Wisdom. Conversely, blood is closely associated with the sun. On the one hand then the title could employ an attempt to merge the two strands. On the other hand it could be taken more literal, i.e. Divine Wisdom could only be gained through blood. The album cover, which depicts two silver serpents over a face bleeding from the eyes, seems to point toward the latter. Serpents are often associated with wisdom, while the face, seemingly blinded, does not seem to be able to handle them. There could also be a psychedelic association at play, which I shall address in a moment.
The album establishes a ritualistic atmosphere from the get go on the title track thanks to Jason Roeder's tribal and highly hypnotic beats. After nearly two minutes of the groove a thesis is stated:
"A Gnostic term for the Supreme Deity; also a cycle of time denoting a period of approximately 2000 years (in the Crowley Cult). The present Aeon of Osiris, which commenced in 1904. It superseded the Aeon of Osiris, which was typified by the rise and fall of such religions as Judaism and Christianity. Previous to that was the Aeon of Isis, the Pagan era, many elements of which are reappearing in the present Aeon."
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 214)
|in the Thoth Tarot Crowley designed the Judgement trump was reimagined as the Aeon|
The transition of Aeons is presented as a violent time by Neurosis, littered with war and injustice. Many fans consider this to be the heaviest of Neurosis' albums and I'd be hard to pressed to dispute this claim. Musically the album brilliantly invokes the feeling of combat --of wandering aimless across a battlefield with bombs exploding all around and your companions being torn to pieces. But the actual war Neurosis depicts is one of the soul and not the body.
On the third track, "Eye," Neurosis seems to initially invoke the kind of spiritual experience certain individuals experience on psychedelics, especially DMT. The lyrics speak of "visions of serpents cut/Life storm/Suffocated/ Spirit's regression avowed." Jeremy Narby wrote extensively on the association between DMT and serpents in his classic The Cosmic Serpent. Writing on his experiences with ayahuasca, a DMT-laced drink consumed by South American Indians during rituals, Narby remarks:
"During my first ayahuasca experience I saw a pair of enormous and terrifying snakes. They conveyed an idea that bowled me over and later encouraged me to reconsider my self-image. They taught me that I was just a human being. To others, this may not seem like a great revelation; but at the time, it was exactly what the young anthropologist I was needed to learn. Above all, it was a thought that I could not have had myself, precisely because of my anthropocentric presuppositions...
"Eight years after my first ayahuasca experience, my desire to understand the mystery of the hallucinatory serpents was undiminished. I launched into this investigation and familiarized myself with the different studies of ayahuasca shamanism only to discover that my experience had been commonplace. People who drink ayahuasca see colorful and gigantic snakes more than any other vision...""Eye" seems to operate along these lines, with the lyrics hinting at an attempt to reconcile the mundane world with a life changing experience brought about by psychedelics. This might be what the album cover alludes to.
(The Cosmic Serpent, pgs. 112-113)
|DMT inspired cosmic serpents|
|the Magician trump is symbolic of "as above, so below"|
The concept of "As above, so below" derives from Hermeticism and was adopted into Freemasonry. Hermeticism also had an enormous influence on Gnosticism, which also seems to play heavily into "Locust Star." Gnosticism developed from Hermeticism in the late pre-Christian/early Christian era and would feature many elements of Christianity, including the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ in many strands. It would run into conflict with orthodox Christianity from almost the get go and would be largely eradicated by it once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. "Locust Star" seems to follow this conflict between Gnostic and orthodox strands of Christianity.
|Odin upon Yggdrasil|
The hanging tree in the above stanza seems to be an allusion to Yggdrasil, the Nordic World Tree on which the god Odin hung from for nine days to receive wisdom (incidentally, there are nine tracks on this album). The narrator undergoes a similar transformation and emerges horrified at the world surrounding him.
"Alchemists have always associated the stage of putrefaction, when matter becomes black, with the raven. They call this stage 'the Raven's Head': it is leprous and must be bleached by 'bathing seven times in the waters of Jordan.' These are the imbibitions, subliminations, cohobations or digestion of matter, all practiced under the lordship of fire alone. This is why the black bird is so often depicted on the pages of ancient treasties of Hermetic lore."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 790-791)
Ravens can also been seen "as a solar hero and often as a Demiurge or messenger of the gods" (ibid, pg. 790). In the context of "Aeon" I suspect they are meant to be perceived as messengers of the gods or possibly even the gods themselves. This makes the appearance of "obsidian tides" most ominous.
"The blades of sacrificial knives were originally made of flint --or obsidian --and the stone has preserved its 'white' magical property among Central American Indians. It preserves against 'black' magic and drives evil spirits away."
(ibid, pg. 710)
|an obsidian blade|
With allusions to discord and "nature's bane", I doubt the "obsidian tides" are meant as driving out 'black' magic --In fact, quite the opposite has taken place. The final track, "Enclosed in Flame," seems to be a realization of the suffering the new Aeon has ushered in. The lunar/stellar tradition ultimately proves no less destructive than the solar. It seemingly ends with the spiritual journey beginning anew, with the narrator "Silently praying for/Enclosure within the/Flame of origin," i.e. still seeking the primal faith of early humanity.
And it is here that I shall wrap things up. In the next installment I shall focus mainly on Neurosis' '00s albums. For my readers that don't normally listen to underground metal, I promise the latter period stuff is not quite as intense.