huge thanks to Cosmo Lee, Scott Plagenhoef, and the entire Pitchfork staff!
Scott Kelly / Steve Von Till
The Wake / A Grave Is a Grim Horse
As metal approaches its fourth decade of existence, it raises the question of what metallers do when they get old. With the help of Viagra, 62 year-old Lemmy of Motörhead is still going strong. Judas Priest's Rob Halford, 56, and Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, almost 50, remain in top shape, vocally and career-wise. Ozzy Osbourne, on the other hand, is showing all of, if not more than, his 59 years. Whether relying on past glories or attempting to fashion new ones, these veterans are still enacting the young man's role that they created: bringing the thunder.
Neurosis' Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till have followed a more organic path: turning down the volume. Neurosis are 23 years old, and their discography has progressed accordingly. Once born of concrete, the band became born of earth. Early recordings of savage hardcore punk gave way to varied experimentation-- metal, industrial, tribal, electronic-- and a gravitas that only comes with age. Later records have been exercises in maximal minimalism, shaping deceptively simple ingredients into textural edifices. Yet they're full of space and nakedness. Neurosis' songs require patience, with long periods of brooding before big, bloody payoffs. Kelly and Von Till's solo acoustic careers are really not that different from Neurosis. They're quieter, of course, but they simply distill the band's concerns-- earth, wind, fire, soul-- to their barest essences. Music need not sound heavy to be heavy.
Kelly's The Wake relies heavily on this principle. It's mostly just his voice and guitar. The former is appealingly husky, while the latter is starkly minimal. This pairing yields a beauty that's a little bare sometimes. Despite their transparent presentation, the lyrics are oblique: "The patterns bring truth/ The stars bring vengeance/ The reasons unknown/ There is no why." Such abstraction can feel wispy, though at times Kelly's guitar gives the songs meat. "The Searcher" has a dramatic ascending riff that could be metal if amplified, while "Catholic Blood" is like a slow-motion version of Tom Petty's "Wildflowers". "Saturn's Eye" is sturdier due to counterpoint, as a distorted lap steel guitar keens over Kelly's dirge-like strumming. It's a distant wolf with a fire nearby, and it's shiver-inducing.
Von Till's folk is much more full-bodied due to diverse instrumentation. On A Grave Is a Grim Horse, he girds his acoustic guitar with electric guitar, banjo, fiddle, cello, drums, and Hammond organ. The result is a lucid, Nick Drake-esque setting subtly crowned with electricity. Von Till also benefits from covering some masters: Drake, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett. However, his songs more than stand on their own. The alt-country lament of "Looking for Dry Land" could have come from Red House Painters. Pedal steel guitar gently weeps in the twangy "Western Son". "Brigit's Cross" alternates crackling electric chords with plaintive fiddle lines. A quavering organ illuminates "The Acre", which instructs, "You must work with the acre you are given." Von Till's not just speaking in metaphor. He moved from the Bay Area to a rural life in Idaho; A Grave is the happy result of a metaller being literally put out to pasture.