Otherworldly energy

Pub date January 14, 2011

Over the course of nine full-length albums, Neurosis has proven its metal mettle, at least on record. To truly appreciate what the band is capable of, however, you’d have to witness one of its legendary live performances, which despite their decreasing frequency are becoming more and more transcendent. Next week, Bay Area headbangers will have two opportunities to do so, both at the Great American Music Hall, where the band plays its first hometown shows since New Year’s Eve 2008.

Reached by phone from his Idaho abode, Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till underscores the primacy of the live experience. “There’s no way the emotion and intensity of what we do live can be captured,” he says. “It has to do not only with the look and the sound but also the energy in the room and the way the bass hits you in the chest.”

The band’s music is nothing if not hard-hitting. Though its members coalesced in 1985 as a rampaging hardcore outfit, Neurosis eventually evolved into a musical force defined by its deliberate, inexorable pacing, sprawling arrangements, and thunderous crescendos. Slabs of detuned, distorted guitars blend with throat-ravaging vocals courtesy of Scott Kelly, second guitarist Von Till, and bassist Dave Edwardson. Though this combination is orthodox, the band’s frequent use of samples, inventive instrumentation, and stately acoustic interludes is anything but.

The “look” of Neurosis is handled by journeyman musician and artist Josh Graham, now a permanent member of the band, who crafts visceral, tectonic visuals during performances in real time, displaying them on a giant screen behind the band. “Certain themes are permanently tied to certain songs,” Van Till explains, “but he performs them. It’s always fluid and always changing, though he’s always trying to keep it clearer and keep it evolving with the music.” So lost are the band’s other members in their own instruments that they have next to no idea what’s going on onscreen. Thankfully, they don’t care: “We have absolute trust in what he’s doing.”

Neurosis is currently preparing to reissue its seminal 1992 album Souls at Zero, which marked an important milestone in the evolution of the band’s sound. “We were crawling out of our hardcore roots and struggling with our instruments,” Van Till explains. “Through touring those songs, we really began to understand that we could totally surrender to the power of this music. It was way bigger than us, and way bigger than any preconceived notions we had about what the music should be. It was like a spiritual, driven force that demanded [things] of us.” While crafting their follow-up the next year, the band members continued to subsume themselves to this otherworldly energy: “Over the course of Enemy of the Sun, we tried to facilitate that [demand] in the songwriting process as well, trying to find the ultimate non-interruption of flow. We’re not very angular. We don’t have lots of crazy time-signature changes or cerebral shifts — we really try to have it go from one place to the next.”

Despite 25 years together as a band, the inescapable drive to create Neurosis music continues unabated: “We’ve been in this band our entire adult lives, and it influences everything we do,” Van Till confides. “Everything in our lives affects how Neurosis music is going to evolve. Everything we hear, everything we see, everything we feel. Life’s trials and tribulations. All of it speaks to what’s happening in the music.”

Something is happening, and Neurosis’ many devoted fans will be overjoyed to hear that the band has been playing “two new songs that are pretty close” during their recent run of shows. “We basically have some skeletons that will really evolve into the next record,” says Van Till. This is momentous news, but the guitarist urges patience: “When that happens, we don’t force it. In some ways, we don’t feel all that responsible for creating [the music], and in a lot of ways — sure, somebody comes up with a riff or somebody comes up with an idea — but it’s an unspoken spirit when we’re all together in a room — it’s just magic and it just clicks.” Van Till insists that nothing can or should be accomplished in a hurry: “We trust the process, and the process is one of starting with some ideas, jamming them out, destroying them, and then having the come back together as a whole that’s greater than anything we could have thought of ourselves.”

Listening to the guitarist talk about his band’s next record, one gets the sense that its arrival will be characterized by the same deliberate, gradual escalation that typifies the band’s heavily-amplified climaxes. No matter which angle you approach Neurosis from, an emphasis on trust — and on the attendant forfeiture of control — is paramount. Speaking of the band’s live performances, Van Till echoes this theme: “We just want to be lost in the trance of the situation, and we hope that the people present also want to just surrender and become a part of it.” Those who attend the show would do well to heed his words. *


with U.S. Christmas, Yob (Sat/15), Saviours (Sun/16)

Sat/15–Sun/16, 9 p.m., $21

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750 www.gamh.com