“This isn’t preconceived ‘brain music,’” says Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till. “It’s heart and viscera, and the only way to get that pure is to surrender yourself to the sounds and let them lead you. This is where true originality and emotional power comes from.”
The former Bay Area band has reinvented itself again on Given to the Rising [Neurot]. Recorded with iconoclastic engineer Steve Albini, Rising is an operatic blitzkrieg of thunderous, densely layered song forms.
“This record is progressive, and it’s very significant for guitar,” says vocalist/co-guitarist Scott Kelly. “Sonically, it’s deep and focused, with a lot of psychedelic noise that keeps pounding and grinding throughout. Some of the songs are long and vast, while others are straight to the point, but the cohesive aspect of all of them fused together is the album’s strongest point. It’s one focused piece.”
“It’s intense and relentless, but not in a typical heavy metal way,” adds Von Till. “It’s more sickening and claustrophobic—less about heavy riffs and more about frequency assault. The textures feel like they’re collapsing in on themselves, instead of being vast and spacious.”
Where do you even begin when you seek to compose such epic musical poems?
Kelly: Our vision is so focused that we start off envisioning things at an advanced stage of development. Then, it becomes a dissolution process. We try not to guide it, so the song almost writes itself. Nothing can be forced.
Von Till: The multitude of ways a song can take shape is never set. Nothing is ever dictated to the group. Each idea gets shoved through the Neurosis meat grinder, where everybody takes it home to pull it apart and throw it back together. We’re creating the ebb and flow of an emotional landscape—which takes more love and time than the standard pop song that employs verse and chorus formulas.
How do you arrange the guitars?
Von Till: We weave in and out of each other’s riffs, coming together when we need a dual attack. If we become aware of a pattern, we throw it out the window. I have a tone and playing style that lends itself to droning open notes, whereas Scott anchors the sound with his heavy riffs. We experiment with harmonies, dissonance, feedback, and ugliness, and we love going back and forth to see how much tension we can create. Scott stays in drop-D tuning, and commonly drops his low E string down to an A. I play in DADGAD—except for any songs that are in the key of A—and I drop the low D down to an A so that I have an octave in A on the bottom two strings. We use a custom .011-.058 gauge set of GHS strings, because they’re real sturdy with the drop tunings.
Kelly: We use a lot of notes that conflict and cause vibrations, as opposed to solid notes. We don’t agree that everything has to be musically correct.
What kind of gear do you use?
Kelly: I play a ’93 Gibson Les Paul Studio with a Duncan Distortion pickup being the only mod. My amp is a Marshall JCM 800, and I use these unbelievably powerful, handmade custom cabs from EarCandy in Indiana. The frequency range is stunning. Every note is totally articulated. There’s bottom-of-the-barrel growl, but throw in a high note, and it’s super clear. Typically, I play straight with a touch of delay, but I sometimes use an MXR Flanger, Blue Box, or EVH Phaser. Both Steve and I use Dunlop Ultex .60mm and green Tortex .88mm picks.
Steve, your rig is a little more complex.
Von Till: I call it the “chain of death!” My main guitars are no-nonsense, Strat-style guitars built from Warmoth parts. I wanted something that would be warm with a lot of sustain, so the necks are fat, the frets are huge, and there’s no wood cut away for pickguards or tremolo units. I installed a Seymour Duncan Distortion pickup in the bridge position, and a Bartolini in the neck—both wired with TRS outputs so the signals can be routed to my custom switcher. On Rising, I used my new custom Tele-style made from Warmoth parts, and further customized by Keith Holland in Los Gatos, California. There’s no finish or pickguard—just an oil rub—so there’s nothing to suck the tone out. It also has a baseball bat for a neck, really big frets, and, along with the traditional Tele-style bridge and neck pickups, a Gibson P-90 in the middle position.
My custom switcher—which was originally built with old Rockman MIDI Octopus units, and later modified by John Joseph of Dredge Tone—allows me to select which pickup signal is active, turn the true-bypass effects loop for my floor pedals on and off, switch amp channels, and select from a series of rack-mounted distortion pedals for each of my two amplifiers. Everything is managed with a custom MIDI foot controller. Some of the pedals I use are the MXR Phase 90 and Blue Box, a MoogerFooger MF-101 Lowpass Filter and MF-102 Ring Modulator, a Dunlop Uni-Vibe, and an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer. The signal is routed to my two amps—a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV with an old-style Mesa cab and a Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Reissue combo—which I run simultaneously. I use all three channels on the Boogie independently: the Lead channel with a vintage Pro Co Rat for full gain, the Rhythm II channel without the Rat for “half” distortion, and the Rhythm I channel for clean, pretty stuff. The Boogie has a lot of character, and the lead tone is like Skynyrd on low-end steroids. It has all this resonance, and the distortion kind of reaches back before it brings the hammer down. It’s not a delay, but it almost feels like the speakers have to take a breath before that exhale. I owe that to the old Boogie 4x12 cabinet, which is deeper and shorter than their new cabs, as well as having the bottom speakers in a sealed enclosure, and the top pair set in an open-back configuration. The Fender is pretty clear, so I run it with another Rat for full-bore gain, and an MXR Distortion Plus for “half gain.” Pretty soon, I’ll be switching to a Bob Bradshaw system to control everything. I have been totally hooked on the tonal options two amps offer for almost 20 years. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a single amp.
What has held Neurosis together?
Von Till: It’s a labor of love that we’ve signed on to for life. Of course, we’re older and have families now, so things could change. My four-year-old daughter spotted the Hello Kitty Mini Stratocaster in the Fender catalog, so that’s what she got for Christmas. She puts it on and rocks out. Maybe someday she’ll replace me [laughs].