In the ornate surroundings of St. Pancras Old Church, I witnessed Jarboe perform for the third time in my life. Afterward, having been invited by Jarboe over email, I waited patiently for an appropriate moment to say, “err, hi! I’m Nick.” Various signings, handshakes, compliments, and hugs passed in good grace until things went quiet enough I felt safe to approach. What struck me almost as soon as I opened my mouth was the sense of someone looking through me at a point six foot behind my head. I was impressed to realize that what I was seeing was a performer who had left everything out on the stage, who had poured every ounce of her energy into her art. I moved quickly away to allow her to recuperate, the moment serving only to enhance my awe.
Having consumed Jarboe’s excellent album Sacrificial Cake, then 1998’s truly brutal Anhedoniac, my appreciation of her gifts as a sound sculptor, a weaver of words, as an expert dramatist working with the human voice, was cemented by the intensity of the 2003 album-length collaboration she shared with Neurosis. It made sense that mutual respect would exist between her and these omnivorous metal alchemists who had masticated numerous other genres into a hard lump made from their most forcefully heart-stopping potential. In 2003 I thought this reckon — why mince words — it fucking rocked! I was worried that re-approaching it a decade-and-a-half later on this 2019 remaster, that I might find it’s impact diminished.
Instead, I felt embarrassed to have taken so long to renew the acquaintance. Opener “Within” worms into the mind with a simple truth: “I tell ya, if God wants to take me, he will…” Southern roots curl each word in ways that could make the speaker a callow teen or a wizened crone or anything in between. The mixing does a superlative job in that Neurosis’ massive sound topples down upon the listener. Yet Jarboe’s stark mantra is always so loud it’s the first thing to hit you in the face. Everything cuts out as she sings an elegiac line, unaccompanied at first, then gradually stalked note-for-note by a beautifully resonant and fragile piano.
In music, it doesn’t matter how many octaves a voice can hit if the words won’t bear the weight. Jarboe’s words always hit home, and her abilities as a lyricist have always passed with too little comment simply because they’re presented in such dazzling ways. This album is full of lines that feel taut, dramatic, and essential. “His Last Words” dances and shimmers for a time through glitches, bleeps, hums until a hard to decipher recording of Jarboe cuts in offering an internal monologue to silence disquiet. The song’s lyrics feel intensely personal and offer beautiful poetry lamenting, “the loss of language of an educated man. He recited poems and Shakespeare, knew the name of every tree in Latin memory. The unjust, cruel sentencing of bewilderment and the dying of the brain.” What a glorious conjoining of pen portrait, tribute, rage and resignation, sheer horror.
The songs that come after pass through numerous moods and modes. “Taker” has that urban predator air shared with Lydia Lunch, Madonna, Nicki Minaj. “Receive” is an unvarnished prayer stained a gorgeous midnight blue with vibrato and breath control. “Erase” is a snarl, a howl, an accusation. It’s the emotional language beneath the delivery, the words themselves, meshed so effectively with the overall timbre of the music that lends coherence and creates this feeling of pursuit which is the inescapable image suffusing the album.
The band aren’t just laying down a bed for Jarboe’s tour de force. On “Receive” an adrenalized heartbeat belies Jarboe’s becalmed resignation; it speaks to fear, to a voice saying “I’m ready!” but protesting perhaps too much. I’ll admit I almost laughed at the drum tattoo underpinning “In Harm’s Way”, as it made me think of “Devil Gate Drive” by Suzi Quatro. But as Jason Roeder pushes it on any comedy falls away, and it becomes the hunter’s pack close at one’s heels.
Finally, the spell breaks after a sweat-soaked three minutes, a gulped breath is permitted, before the band strike up a filthy slog bringing the song down to a rumble more felt than heard, vibrations sensed through a skull pressed to earth. On “Cringe” there’s a huge minute where the guitars chime so heavily the vibrations come to resemble a room filled with singing bowls. Then a cunning move as the song whirs back to life so suddenly it seems like a production trick, a speeded-up tape — there are moments of genius like this all across this album.
A light criticism is that there’s a certain uniformity of song structure. A sample or single sound source commences, elements build around it, then the song breaks open. The result is that everything exceeds the five-minute mark because a minute or two is needed for this initial uncoiling. It isn’t a huge issue though, as each intro tugs at the ear in interesting ways. I wound up thinking of them as un-denoted interludes lending vital ebbs to a record that has an almost exhausting flood of detail with which to contend. By the same virtue, except for the perfectly-placed opener, each song travels so far within its own orbit that the record as a whole doesn’t feel like a journey. The songs can be listened to in any order. Again, this isn’t a problem when the songs feel so vast that one can think of them as a solar system of circling celestial elements.
Gargantuan closer “Seizure” is a fitting conclusion, a song that feels like a hand tight around the throat. The tension never breaks, every slight increase in pressure registers in the heart and the head, minutes pass with microscopic motion feeling weighty and significant, sweat trickles and you remain pinned by the sound until — at last — it’s over.