Welcome to the second installment of my series on the legendary metal band Neurosis. In the first part I briefly examined the band's origins and influence before delving into the rich esoteric symbolism used in their work. Neurosis relays on their music as wells as their artwork and multi media-laced concerts to convey complex ideals steeped in the occult.
When I left off at part one I had been examining the apocalyptic overtones of their early-to-mid 90s albums. In those works Neurosis presented a world being torn apart by spiritual bankruptcy, among other things. These albums were very morose and angry affairs that examined the effects this corruption had on society as whole in the form of wars, oppression and the like. As the decade came to a close Neurosis' work began to shift gears. Musically they still maintained their mighty heaviness but they began expanding the ambient and atmospheric soundscapes that had previously offered a brief reprieve from this heaviness on earlier albums. Noah Landis' keyboards and samples began to take on a more central role in their sound, especially. Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly would even attempt singing in clean vocals semi-regularly.
The lyrical focus of later albums would seemingly become more personal but no less occult as the album artwork from Times of Grace makes clear. Released in 1999, Neurosis' sixth album marked the beginning of their transition from breathtaking brutality to mysterious subtlety. The album cover displays a wolf, jaws open, either about to be consumed by flames or discharging said flames from said open jaw. Both the wolf and its jaws are ripe with symbolic possibilities.
"This devour symbolism is that of the mouth, the archetypal image of initiation, connected with the phenomena of the alternations of days and nights and of life and death. The mouth devours and regurgitates. It is the initiator assuming, according to place, the shape of the most voracious creature in that particular area --wolf, jaguar, crocodile or other animal. In Scandinavian mythology the wolf is explicitly described as 'devouring the stars...' and bears comparison with the wolf which ate the quail in the Rig-Veda. If, as we have observed, the quail is a symbol of light, the wolf's mouth is night, the cavern, the Underworld or the phase of cosmic pralaya. Release from the wolf's jaws is dawn, the light of initiation which follows a descent into the Underworld or kalpa."Is the fire supposed to represent the light of initiation? Another symbol that appears within the CD booklet on the last page, that of the double spiral, seems to indicate this.
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1121)
"The double spiral symbolizes simultaneously the two directions of this movement, birth and death, kalpa and pralaya, or the 'death' and the rebirth as a changed person which occurs in initiation."The lyrical content of Grace seems to be based around the concept of initiation, but possibly initiation into the collective unconscious. As the album unfolds a concept of internal illumination emerges, alluding to the notion that the answers are already somewhere in our minds. Many other pages in the CD booklet portray important religions images -that of the Demiurge, the Star of Inanna, the Eye of Providence, etc. The gist of the album seems to be unraveling the unconscious meaning of such symbols.
(ibid, pg. 907)
Grace opens with an aptly titled instrumental called "Suspended in Light" which establishes a suitably druggy atmosphere. From there it moves onto the proper opener, "The Doorway" where the theme of initiation is stated. This is made clear with lines like "To burrow my way through death and flesh/All beasts I let out" and "I'm nailed to the crossroads searching for a piece of me that wasn't mine/Blood dripping from my hands." Various forms of initiation frequently attempt to recreate the state of death from which the initiate will ultimately be resurrected. Crossroads are not overtly associated with initiation but they are frequently places depicted as containing arcane wisdom. They are at times presented as as gateways to the Underworld as well. They are also places to choice a path, both literal and psychological.
"Crossroads are also places where one meets 'the enemy,' either within or without. It is a favorite place for ambush and travellers must be carefully on their guard. The triple Hecate and Hermes, conductor of souls, stand at the crossroads, because this is the place where we must make, by ourselves and within ourselves, the inevitable choice between Earth, Heaven and Hell. The real hazards of living are encountered in the inner life and there, at the crossroads, the only person you ever meet is yourself. You may have sought a positive response, but all you have in prospect are fresh paths, new trials and fresh developments. The crossroads is not the end, it is merely a pause an an invitation to go on. You only linger there so as to react for good or ill upon others, or if you yourself realize that you cannot make a choice. It then becomes a place of meditation and waiting, not action."
(ibid, pg. 261)
At the onset of Grace an internal struggle is unfolding over which path to take: that or normalcy or that of initiation. The latter is chosen and as the album unfolds the struggle of this choice is depicted. The next track, "Under the Surface," deals with the immediate terror and confusion after the path of initiation is chosen. Uncertainty sets in as the calls of "Your river's flow is damned all to hell" that constitutes the chorus makes clear. Still, the narrator continues on the path, proclaiming:
"Time was first reckoned with reference to the circumpolar stars of Ursa Major, or Typhon. She was the Goddess of the North, identical to Nuit or Isis... She was the Primal Goddess of the Seven Stars which were considered as her spirits, souls, or sons. These seven were manifested by the first-born son, Typhon, i.e. Set in the southern constellation of the Great Dog, of which Sirius (Sothis, the soul of Isis) is the brightest star. He was the primal God of Fire or Light in the South, while his mother reigned supreme in the lower heaven of the North. He manifested her light and opened the year by announcing the unundation of the Nile which occurred at the summer solstice, when the sun entered the sign of the Lion.
"The Mother and her brood of seven culminating in Set, were the earliest and most ancient gods of chaos and night. in the later, lunar cult, the Sabean Set became the lunar Thoth, but this was aeons later. Then, when the even later solar cult attained supremacy throughout the land, the cult of the Mother was superseded and the cult of the Fatherhood held sway. It reigned upon the earth and was figured in the heavens by the sun having superseded both the stars and the moon, as a truer teller of time."
(The Magical Revival, pg. 64-65)
This solar cult, initially represented by the Osirisian and later by orthodox Christians (as opposed to the Gnostic strands), attempted to eradicate all traces of the original stellar cult, which Crowley referred to as the Draconian Cult (taken from the Draco constellation). This is a notion that Neurosis seemingly takes up on Set, on the first track featuring lyrics, "The Tide":
"He won the knowledge of the Runes, too, by suffering. The Runes were magical inscriptions, immensely powerful for him who could inscribe them on anything --wood, metal, stone. Odin learned them at the cost of mysterious pain. He says in the Elder Edda that he hung
Nine whole nights on wind-rocked tree,Wounded with a spearI was offered to Odin, myself to myselfOn that tree of which no man knows
"He passed the hard-won knowledge on to men. They too were able to use the Runes to protect themselves."(Mythology, pg. 455)
|Odin upon Yggdrasil|
Interestingly, the video for "From Where Its Roots Run" is a trippy affair showing an individual being suspended from a tree by the feet. This is possibly how human sacrifices were offered to Odin.
"The human victims dedicated to Odin were regularly put to death by hanging or by a combination of hanging and stabbing, the man being strung up to a tree or a gallows and then wounded with a spear. Hence Odin was called the Lord of the Gallows or the God of the Hanged, and he is represented sitting under a gallows tree. Indeed he is said to have been sacrificed to himself in the ordinary way, as we learn from the weird verses of the Havamal, in which the god describes how he acquired his divine power by learning the magic runes..."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pgs. 355-356)
|Sacrifices to Odin|
As the album winds down it seems to shift its focus back to the return of ancient spiritual traditions. "Watchfire" falls into this description and even invokes the ancient megaliths that have inspired so many theories over the years. The album closer, "Stones From the Sky," goes even further with the megalith theme.
"Stones" is a major fan favorite and for good reason. It's the type of epic and trippy journey into inner space that a band like Pink Floyd could only dream of writing. The song, over ten minutes, is built around a repeating guitar riff over which guitarist Scott Kelly and keyboardist Noah Landis send the mind into flight. The video for the song prominently features a raven throughout, continuing with the Odinic motif introduced on "From Where Its Root Run." In Scandinavian mythology two ravens, Hugin (Mind) and Munnin (memory), are often depicted as perched upon his throne.
|an image from the video for "Stones From the Sky"|
Beyond the title "Stones" most overtly invokes megaliths via the lines "Walking amongst the stones/From the sky/Feeling their rhythm wash over me." One of the most fantastical theories surrounding ancient megaliths is that they were a kind of acoustic sound-based technology that had curious effects on the human body.
"It's worth recalling that the legends uncovered by Geoffrey of Monmouth suggests the giant stones of Stonehenge, possibly maneuvered by acoustics, possessed healing properties. Interestingly, a great deal of research has been undertaken in recent years into the effects of acoustics on the human body. For example, the Website of the Encinitas, California-based Center for Neuroacoustic Research notes: 'Cutting edge, scientific sound technology, combined with a deep understanding of the ancient use of sound to heal and expand consciousness, has brought CNR the ability to balance the autonomic nervous system in real time.'"
(The Pyramids and the Pentagon, Nick Redfern, pg. 231)
The final lyrics of both the song and the album are "You've been shown over and over, don't you know?" Given the rich esoterica of Neurosis' catalogue, this is as fitting a message that they could deliver to their listeners as any.
Said listeners expanded somewhat with the release of the next album, The Eye of Every Storm. This album would make inroads with indie hipsters who became fascinated with post-metal in the early 00s. Please don't hold this against Neurosis, who remained as compelling as ever. Sonically this album continues in the direction of Sets. Keyboardist/sampler Noah Landis had taken on an even bigger role in the songwriting at this point and it shows --His keys have become as important a component to Neurosis' sound as Kelly and Von Till's guitars.
Lyrically this album seems somewhat more personal than prior releases. Both "Left to Wander" and album closer "I Can See You" seem to mainly revolve around coming to terms with death. Album opener "Burn" comes off as yet another call to alternative spirituality in the face of stifling materialism.
"Through its clairvoyance and knowledge of the other world, the horse played a major part in shamanistic ceremonies. The good spirit of the shamans of the Altai region, which accompanies them on their soothsaying journeys, possesses 'horse's eyes which enable it to see thirty days' journey ahead. It watches over mankind and tells the supreme deity of their doings... Most of the adjuncts of the shaman's trance were related to the horse. Thus the skin of the ritual drum, rhythmically beaten to induce trance and bring it to climax, was more often than not that of horse or stag, and Yakut and other tribes expressly called it 'the shaman's horse...' Lastly, shamans often use for their passages into the Otherworld a stick with a carved horse's head, called the 'horse-stick', used, in a way reminiscent of the witch's broomstick, like a live horse."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alian Gheerbrant, pg. 518)
|a shaman with horse sticks|
Despite the heavily shamanistic overtones of Rising's artwork the album seemingly follows a somewhat more personal path lyrically like it's predecessor. Many of the songs seem to reflect upon the war-torn world that emerged in the 00s. This is very much in keeping with the musical direction of the album. Here Neurosis' sludge and doom influences return in force along with Von Till and Kelly's hoarse growls and tortured screams. Landis' keyboards still play a major role but the guitars on this album are heavier and more prominent than anything the band's done since Grace, maybe even Through Silver in Blood. Jason Roeder also plays a much larger role on this album with his tribal beats once again appearing regularly throughout the album. All of this gives Rising an atmosphere of conflict and decay brought about by endless war.
The opening song and title track introduces this theme right off the bat with lines like "The human plague in the womb/Bring clouds of war" and "The wretched harvest reaped by the hands of dawning/Our pain cannot forgive the silent machine of the fatal flaw in man." The next track, "Fear and Sickness," continues in this vein, chronicling how the Earth itself has been poisoned by the greed of our overlords. Amongst spiraling tribal beats either Von Till or Kelly howls "At the center we will find you/ Falling prey to its luster," as apt a description of the corruption of power as any.
"At the End of the Road" reflects upon on the destruction of the natural world. "Hidden Faces" is seemingly the only track on the album that falls into the shamanism hinted at by the cover. The song can be read as a chronicle of a journey into the Otherworld in which the narrator is confronted with the evil ravaging the land.
The first part about "the eyes of the wheel" seems to be a reference to the ophanim, the burning, eye-covered wheels of Ezekiel's vision. In this context it can be seen as symbolic of the unrolling of divine revelation. The Biblical allusions seem to continue with the reference to the "weathering vine."
"Jesus proclaimed himself the true vine and warned that mankind, the separate branch, could not bear fruit unless they remained in him. Unless the individual did so, he or she withered, cut off and cast into the fire."I leave my readers to decide what the "Hidden faces/Spirit faces" are that the narrator ultimately comes into contact with. As the albums winds down the folly of this pact becomes evident, as the largely spoken-word "Nine" makes clear:
(ibid, pg. 1067)
Nine is of course a number riddled with symbolism. I've written much more on it here so I will not delve to deeply in this piece. Generally speaking though, nine is viewed as a negative, even evil number. It is associated with failure and shortcoming because it fell short of the perfect number 10 by one. It has also been called the number of man because of the nine months of embryonic life a human being undergoes before birth.