I’ll mention first that All Music Guide’s John Serba (and 37 of the site’s users, for whatever their worth) rated this Neurosis side trip with Jarboe at 4.5 out of 5 stars. Dusted writer Jason Bivins says, “I had high expectations. They’ve been surpassed. This is one of the year’s best.” (That year being 2003, one year before Decibel slid from Mudrian’s womb and began bathing itself in the saliva of Ben Weinman and Kurt Ballou.) The album settled right into the middle of Terrorizer’s list of 2003’s best albums, surpassing Melt-Banana, Pelican and Deftones. (If you’re gonna spend the comments section arguing about something, there’s some fodder right there.) Chronicles of Chaos scribe James Slone says, “There are moments here… that elevate the Neurosis sound even higher.” I’m not saying you should blindly trust these sources instead of your own ears, and I’m sure as hell not resting my entire argument on such subjective shoulders, but we should at least acknowledge that Neurosis & Jarboe certainly doesn’t require universal defense.
Souls at Zero is a sprawling epic journey, a pre-masterpiece in a discography littered with masterpieces. Enemy of the Sun is more organically heavy, if not quite so revelatory. Then come the larger-than-life planet-crushers Through Silver in Blood and Times of Grace. Bow and be anointed/annihilated by their violence. Not everyone loves the new-millennium simmer of A Sun That Never Sets or The Eye of Every Storm, but that’s okay; we can put those people directly in front of the band’s amp stacks and watch them be vaporized in sacrificial offering to the god of music that matters.
Let’s not forget, by the way, that during this time the same guys toiled away at sound art alchemy in Tribes of Neurot. Silver Blood Transmission, Grace and A Resonant Sun were directly related to their more highly structured parents, but there was also the unbelievably weird Adaptation and Survival – collages based on heavily processed insect sounds – and eventually the sublime Meridian, arguably the pinnacle of this ambient/noise project’s pursuits.
Neurosis & Jarboe might have fared better if it had been billed as a Tribes of Neurot project. Slithery noise and slinky guitarscapes buffeted by Jason Roeder’s tribal drum patterns were par for the Tribes’ course by 2003, and as the experimental project’s personnel was identical to its more explosive brother band, a different branding might have eased the audience’s expectations for what the album contained. This collaboration brandishes very few of the hallmarks of Neurosis’ best work – tectonic chords grinding against a dense keyboard fog and vocal performances draped in metaphoric pain – but frequently coils and spasms with the exploratory sonics prevalent in a Tribes of Neurot release. Would it have found all of its prospective audience under the Tribesof Neurot banner? Probably not. The Neurosis brand carries a lot of weight in the extreme metal community, and throwing that weight around probably made a lot of sense in marketing this record. It may have also skewed expectations and drawn criticism that might have been mitigated with different branding.
But is Neurosis & Jarboe a mind-expanding album of extraordinary power on its own merits? Absolutely. It is, admittedly, much more emotionally naked piece of art, and much of its potency is on loan to Neurosis from a vortex of feminine darkness, which is largely alien to the band’s standard milieu. (Side note: When this album came out, I was also trying to convince myself to experience creativity from both sides of the gender line, and I somehow decided that Bjork was my salvation from drowning in testosterone and losing contact with half the world’s population.) Jarboe’s lyrics – throughout, but especially on “His Last Words,” “Receive” and “In Harm’s Way” – are more candid than anything Scott Kelly or Steve Von Till are generally comfortable with in their own overcast poetry. Also, her domination of the microphone makes us often feel that we are right next to her while she experiences these full-body emotions, an awkward position that seems no less uncomfortable knowing that it’s only a plastic recording being mechanically reproduced by speakers. Her performances – often histrionic in their stage whispers, ominous spoken timbre or alto vibrato – also nudge most men well out of their comfort zone. I suppose it’s easy to dismiss it all as willful melodrama, but I argue that it should be celebrated precisely for its willingness to confront feelings we might rather ignore. Isn’t that how we usually defend our love of heavy music in general to the society of pop-worshippers who surround us?
Any great album knits its individual songs into a singular, unified experience, and Neurosis & Jarboe definitely achieves that. “Within” sets the tone with its bipolarity, an abrasive mantra wrapped around a delicate melody. “Taker” belly-crawls through a breathy landscape full of menace and overt threats to self and sanity. The echoey throb of “Cringe” holds its own while bridging a pair of the album’s true centerpieces. Closer “Siezure” is a blissful 2:00 a.m. contemplation in the orange ember-light of a dying campfire, augmented by synthetic electronic textures and clanging guitar that would eventually become significant to Steve Von Till’s Harvestman sound.
And there’s “Erase,” a mindfucker of a song that focuses all the expected ire in one nine-minute barrage. Jarboe is her most demonic here, with repeated questions peeled from an unwilling throat and the incantation, “Define me, defy me, defile me,” that spirals completely out of her control into unhinged screeching. Still, in all this vocal violence, the band actually remains relatively reserved, which may feed the discontent of the album’s detractors.
Before we all grew up into jaded, professional shruggers defined by our carefully curated tastes and keenly tuned bullshit meters, every one of us began as naïve hoarders. Talk to anyone involved in the 80’s metal tape trading scene and you’ll hear about dozens of quasi-shitty recordings by half-drunk know-nothings being hailed as influential masterpieces. In the early days of death metal and grindcore, structural integrity wasn’t nearly so important as total devotion to a scene, to this demonically hyper-aggressive anti-aesthetic that marked a band as true purveyors of uncouth extremity.
In fairness, every honest piece of music, film, literature or other type of art deserves to be experienced this way by somebody. Whether the discerning aficionados decide to praise or slag it as hack trash is inconsequential; when the imperfect human meat/mind combo conspires to express the intangible in some form that can be sensually experienced, the resulting creation deserves to be swallowed whole, without analysis, by someone who’s hungry enough to take it all in. Rigid expectations and inflexible definitions of What Is Good and What Is Not wall us off from that transcendent experience we had in that more innocent early state. Neurosis & Jarboe may not have checked all the boxes you’ve come to expect from a Neurosis record. It may not be a towering monument to the collapse of civilization and all Earthbound biological systems. But as a monument to the collapse of one isolated psyche (read: your own), as an exploration of an emotional sphere often relegated to the unconscious, Neurosis & Jarboe is far more compelling than any other attempt we’ve heard yet.