“A Neurosis show could actually kill an old person,” a message board denizen declared a while back.
Sold. And there we stand outside SF’s Great American Music Hall, on one of those absurdly foggy Wednesday nights whereupon the city transforms into a giant malfunctioning smoke machine. A sizable scrum has gathered here — the Will Call line stretches nearly to the strip club next door, and running parallel, a nearly-as-long Wish I Was in the Will Call Line of devout fans fishing for spare tickets to a sold-out show, the Oakland metal collective’s first one here in several years.
Inside, the joint is packed wall-to-wall with pretty people bundled up in Morrissey Concert Black — we’re in for a Religious Experience tonight. The mood is hesitant, subdued, vigilant, reverential. The stage is already set, with an enormous circular projection screen — an overturned trampoline, a white-chocolate space egg — looming ominously over the drum kit.
No fanfare, no bullshit, no opener. Just a prominently advertised “two-and-a-half-hour” death ray of visceral, cinematic, slow-burn metal.
In my personal hundreds-of-shows concert-going experience, I can comfortably count with my own two hands those sets I feel justified a two-and-a-half-hour run time. The vast majority, even those I thoroughly enjoyed, did not — 150 minutes is a long-ass time to do anything, let alone stand there with cramped legs as a six-man hesher wrecking crew bitch-slaps you with low-end.
No, Neurosis won’t make my hand-count. But these gentlemen are certainly adept at balling your heart into a throbbing, knuckle-cracking fist.
The first harrowing words projected onto the space egg: “Press any button — Sony.” Whoops.
Neurosis files slowly onto the stage and breaks into its first song, “How About We Stand Here Facing Our Amps Tuning Up for a Full Ten Minutes as Ambient Music Plays, So as to Build Anticipation.” Righteous. So righteous, in fact, that Neurosis will reprise this tune at several points along our evening’s Apocalypse Now (Redux) journey. Song No. 2 is better, though: Drums crashing like flaming hailstones the size of Buicks, bass slithering like a napalm python, seething guitars frying our brains like cancer-causing microwave rays.
That’s my best shot at overliterary description; everyone takes it. Since the band hit the underground bigtime with 1991’s Souls at Zero, every Neurosis review — the Express‘ own included — personifies this music as an evil, physical, tangible presence: a mastodon, a horde of mongoloid invaders, the wrath of G-d incarnate. This may strike you as wonky, but there’s simply a finite number of ways, when confronted with the band’s latest, The Eye of Every Storm, to say Jesus H. Christ, this is really loud and really scary. Would you prefer the overreferencing rock critic approach? All right then: Call it Ambient Doom Rock, applying the glacial pace and arty flourishes of, say, Sigur Rós, but replacing that yodeling oo-ee-oo lumberjack-lookin’ singer guy with two badass metalhead growlers backed by amps so combustible you could cook bacon double-cheeseburgers on ’em.
Those burgers slowly charred over the course of countless ten-minute dirge-jams in no particular hurry to do anything other than whup your chump ass. Though the drummer occasionally launched into a (Mongolian army) gallop or a thrashy interlude, he mostly behaved like a dental patient fifteen seconds before the drugs kicked in: graaduuuallly sloooowiiing doooowwwwnnn. That good ol’ napalm-python bass got a coupla chances to bust out and funk it up, but mostly locked in with the lurching guitars to create the rock crit-patented Giant Sonic Wall of Fooking Fury.
And the occasional yeearrghing lyrics? Okay, but unnecessary, unless you enjoy playing Guess That Lyric: Did he just say a distant cancerous season wasn’t groovy? The Neurosis Experience thrives on atmosphere, a never-ending and wordless rolling thunderstorm of terror. The space egg broadcast the usual spate of psychedelic imagery — medical charts, brawling insects, flowers blooming in reverse, the time-honored Storm Clouds Moving Real Fast — but even that seemed secondary. C’mon, metalheads of the world. Reach deeper into your bag of visual tricks, or just let the soundmen play Missile Command.
Meanwhile, Jarboe, respected doomy diva who hooked up with the band on last year’s Neurosis & Jarboe disc, took the stage for a several-song mid-set collaboration. She injected an intermittently welcome bit of Frontwoman Charisma to all this, murderously towering over us like the grown-up TV-hopping little-girl killer from The Ring. She bellowed, she howled, she hyperventilated, she screamed louder and more forcefully than either of the Neurosis dudes. But she also literally recited the Hail Mary at one point — an overly pungent block of Broadway goth cheese. Marilyn Manson rendered this particular field fallow years ago, alas. And the Jarboe section climaxed when Eugene Robinson, frontman for SF metal outfit Oxbow, staggered onstage and rehashed his now-infamous stage trick: flaunting his unbuttoned pants and threatening to pull his schlong out.
Thankfully, he did not. Instead, Jarboe read the lyrics scrawled in radiant ink on Eugene’s back.
This was not particularly necessary.
No, Neurosis works best when you close your eyes and just let the undistilled sonic assault physically erode your body. Fortunately, the bulk of the show allowed for exactly that: slow-motion headbanging, slow-motion entropy. And the congregation gave thanks and praise, dudes in the front row literally draped over the onstage monitors as if weeping or bowing in supplication.
Meanwhile, near the crowd’s center, some shellshocked guy stood bolt upright, staring at the ceiling, his arms outstretched, his face awestruck. For the entire show. As though the Great American’s chandelier was gonna throw him a football. As though Jesus, or Elvis, or Cliff Burton, or someone was descending from heaven, or ascending from, you know, Hayward. As though Neurosis was changing his life. Or destroying it. Or just repainting it in fierce, brilliant monochrome. As though every old person he’d ever met was dying.