Constantly running into trees
Downhill skiing is all about momentum. Things generally get off to a fairly slow start, but pick up speed and intensity as momentum compounds upon itself. At this point in the equation the laws of inertia take over and provided the downhill skier doesn’t plow into a tree, a continued fast pace becomes nigh effortless. A strong metal album operates in much the same way as a downhill skiing run, kicking off with a burst of energy then naturally coasting through complex musical terrain, all the while maintaining an air of effortlessness. Some bands like Cobalt, Horrendous, and Nails, have bottled up this formula with great success, their recent albums perfectly exemplifying the brutal technicality of their respective realms. Unfortunately Neurosis never seemed to get the memo, leading their latest entry Fires Within Fires, to wander lost through its short track list without any sense of direction or pace.
The first track of the album “Bending Light” immediately goes against the above outlined principles. The song begins with a slow strange repetitive section that carries on long enough that one is prone to forget that they had put on a metal album and not some sort of esoteric guitar record. Fortunately, the track redeems itself when the band members of Neurosis seemingly remember “Oh crap, we’re a metal band” and chug into the one of the most compelling moments on the album. The vocals on this track are harsh and emotive, although they could stand to incorporate some variance in pitch, the singer seemingly content to allow note length to be the sole factor in determining the impact of his voice. The instruments are powerful and deliver a solid punch to the listener, had Neurosis cut the long intro down to about thirty seconds this could have been a great track, but it’s excessive length makes it feel bloated and sluggish where it should be lithe and urgent.
“A Shadow Memory” is the equivalent of hitting a tree, shedding all the momentum from the back half of “Bending Light.” “A Shadow Memory” opens slowly, with guitar work that is highly reminiscent of Tool. The singing in this track comes in significantly flatter than in “Bending Light,” his voice often straining in areas where it seems unnecessary or obnoxious and never quite regaining the emotive ability found in the previous track. This unfortunately will become a running theme through the remaining three tracks on the album. The saving grace of this track is the interesting guitar work featuring slow warped sliding sounds that break up the more standard grinding guitar. “Fire is the End Lesson” overcomes the issue of momentum killing starts that has plagued the album thus far by actually starting off with some punch. A punch which is then blocked by the least interesting singing on the entire album, all the previously mentioned issues still persist but now are further exacerbated by a strange pace to his singing cadence that stutters through the song. The track is again partially redeemed by an atmospheric center section and then a slower guitar solo that despite it’s muddling pace still comes through with impressive urgency.
“Broken Ground” marks the first time a slow intro has actually worked on this album, the lingering whining in the background with the singers low grumble and acoustic guitars that slowly build into a crescendo immediately bring to mind comparisons of modern era Swans. This track is incredibly enjoyable, by creating its own little ski run it avoids being bogged down by its own length, constantly building momentum throughout the duration of the track. Had this track served as the blueprint of the whole album it would have been much more successful venture, leaving the listener to struggle with questions of “should have” and “could have been.” The closer “Reach” hearkens back to “A Shadow Memory” with the more Tool like intro, although hints of Swans remain in the track.
Unlike “Broken Ground,” the track doesn’t pick up until a decent part of the way through the song, causing the interest of the listener to wane as the track trudges through the same repetitions at a slowly increasing pace. The song dies down and rises into repetition multiple times, and while it is exciting to see a metal band push in multiple directions and break a perceived mold, it would be preferable to see them doing it in a far less quaint method. By the sixth minute the song still hasn’t really evolved through any major changes, and while that may work in a fifteen or twenty minute song it becomes obnoxious on a ten minute track. Once the increase in pace finally occurs the listener will likely have lost interest, and even if they haven’t the more metal section of the song continues on in a rather dull pattern, leading to a disappointing end to an album that had only recently begun to show slivers of potential.
While the skiing analogy is apt for metal albums and other rock derivatives in many cases, this record refuses to follow along with the key points of the metaphor, instead turning each song into a miniature journey of its own. In a way this album comes across as a strange sonic sitcom, each track making the promise of a self contained musical arc, with the next song containing no traces of the previous. Unfortunately for Neurosis that process generally lends itself to good songs and poor albums, leaving Fires Within Fires finding itself squarely within the latter category, as an album plagued with a lack of focus, that only shows glimpses of potential.