It would be natural to expect a band to run out of steam after 30 years of activity. And yet Oakland’s sludge metal juggernaut Neurosis is still going strong, levelling everything in sight with monstrous riffs and peerless atmosphere. 2012’s Honor Found in Decay was a long and sometimes ponderous stare into the abyss; the songs there, though largely enjoyable, were overlong and exhausting. Fires Within Fires, released on September 23rd, 2016, is shorter than its predecessor by 20 minutes, and yet the adage “leaner and meaner” has never seemed more apt, as Fires Within Fires showcases a revitalized Neurosis that contains all the primal intensity of past works in a more immediate fashion. If the band’s past efforts were a sledgehammer to the gut, this is a spear to the throat.
The vigor of the riffs and guitar lines on display is what most immediately sets Fires Within Fires apart from its predecessor, but so too does the restrain shown by Noah Landis’ synthesizers and samples. Neurosis was never a band that relied on ELP keyboard grandiosity, but on Honor Found in Decay the guitars, synths and rhythm were all used largely for texture, which made even the standout songs blend together somewhat. The songs on Fires Within Fires still shift and mutate as always, but the songwriting is a step up from the last album: Landis’ presence enhances the crushing guitars and vocals of Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly, the desk-rattling bass of Dave Edwardson and the tribal drum-work of Jason Roeder. Opener “Bending Light” blasts right out of the gate with a monstrous riff, tapering off into disquieting atmospherics for several minutes, only to reenergize with an even more monstrous riff thereafter. Later, album-closer “Reach” gradually morphs from slow, post-rock despair into a bludgeoning guitar breakdown. Fires Within Fires as a whole showcases musical moments that are alternatingly sorrowful and harrowing, whether it’s the shimmering beauty that opens “Broken Ground” or the guitar punishment throughout “Fire is the End Lesson.”
The language of brutality is a long-standing facet of the band’s lyrics, but the words on Fires Within Fires, even by the usual Neurosis standards, are grim and ugly. “To the madness and the fire/of the salt made anew/slit the throats of those who light the torches/smother in their blood” sings Von Till on “A Shadow Memory” as the guitars hammer out yet another pounding riff. On “Broken Ground” Von Till and Kelly alternatingly bellow out the album’s most savage imagery: “The fear in our eyes is clean/spiders have burrowed deep/and the eggs are all dying/leaving us within our own fetus” Kelly roars as the song winds down from guitar-lead assault to a synthesizer-lead aftermath. Both men harmonize on the aforementioned “Reach,”, and in the song’s refrain they offer perhaps the album’s most hopeful line: “My head is down, and I am with you.” Desolation surrounds, and the best you can hope for is that you’re not undertaking the journey alone.
These elements of quiet and loud, light and dark are not new to the music of Neurosis, but here they are especially refined and accomplished. The dark seems omnipresent, and the light seems toxic, like the sun viewed through a haze of nuclear fallout. Fires Within Fires can join the Neurosis canon, alongside albums like Through Silver in Blood and Times of Grace, as a masterwork of collapse.