It's often easy to spot a Steve Albini-engineered album the first time you hear it. The deep, full bass tones, the sometimes grating, almost overpowering whooshes of guitars, the raw, unpolished vocals, and best of all, that drum sound, the tones of which always so warm, yet jarring. The man's been displaying his studio prowess for nearly 20 years now, appearing on countless records, and of course, that distinctive sound of his tends to work better with some bands than others. Who can forget the stunning work the man has done with such bands as The Pixies (hey, the dude made David Lovering sound like John Bonham), Nirvana, Helmet, PJ Harvey, and more recently, McLusky? And take a band like Neurosis, for instance. Veterans of the hardcore/goth/metal circuit, the Bay Area quintet are approaching their 20th year together, and late in their career, they've finally found the perfect studio whiz to collaborate with. They were simply made for each other.
Consistently at the forefront of underground metal, Neurosis started off combining the pummeling tones of hardcore with the cacophony of industrial music, steadily building momentum, culminating in their breakthrough 1996 album Through Silver in Blood, an awe-inspiring blend of tribal beats, black metal guitar riffs, and frantically screamed vocals, sounding kind of like a stripped-down version of Tool, without all the navel-gazing melodrama. First collaborating with Albini in 1999, the band started to tone down their relentless brand of music, with mixed results, but now, in 2004, both the band and Albini have perfected this new version of the Neurosis sound, as The Eye of Every Storm is not only the band's finest album in years, but also yet another reminder of Albini's genius.
The Eye of Every Storm finds a comfortable middle ground between the epic ferocity of Through Silver and Blood and the restraint of 2002's A Sun That Never Sets, as songs ebb and flow like waves; you find yourself floating amidst hushed, ambient tones, only to be repeatedly pulled under by a fierce undertow of deafening guitars and cymbal crashes. Album opener "Burn" gets things off to a quick start, but the song's seven minute excursion into the darker depths of nu-metal is a bit of a red herring, as its churning rhythms and riffs aren't repeated anywhere else on the album. Instead, for the next hour, much like what Meshuggah did on their last album, Neurosis slow down considerably, opting to just let the notes sustain, rumbling in your gut. However, unlike Meshuggah, Neurosis tale their trademark sound and completely strip it down to its basics; there is no intricate guitar work, nor any drum flourishes, providing listeners with some of the most disciplined, restrained metal music we've heard in years.
It's on "No River to Take Me Home" where The Eye of Every Storm settles into its somnambulistic groove. Guitarist/singer Scott Kelly croons in a deep, Nick Cave style baritone, as he and Steve Von Till provide a doom-ridden riff, as drummer Jason Roeder pounds away in that same slow-yet-energetic style that Bill Ward perfected with Black Sabbath. Midway through, you get one of the album's many majestic crashes, as an ultra-low, bent guitar chord underscores the main riff. "Left to Wander" boasts a minute-long wall of noise during the intro, before shifting abruptly to hushed silence, while "A Season in the Sky" starts off as a forlorn, folk-inspired gothic ballad ("I came to a pile of ashes and sifted through it looking for teeth"), but builds and builds, ever so slowly, until it climaxes with a stunning coda, featuring a king hell superbeast of a riff that will have Sabbath fans beaming.
It's on the album's two longest tracks, however, that the bombastic, epic formula of quiet-loud-quiet-loud is worked to perfection. The title track opens innocuously, Noah Landis's organ notes and some backing vocal harmonies adding a soothing, yet eerie feel, not unlike the Radiohead of recent years. In true prog-rock fashion, that's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as the song comes to a complete halt five minutes in, save for a creepy, pulsating Moog synth note, and Von Till's screams that sound so anguished, you can picture his neck muscles straining from the effort, as he howls, "Now oooooathbreakerrrr sinks loooooowwwww!" The entire band returns in the song's third movement, repeating the musical theme of the intro, bringing the song to a stirring conclusion. "Bridges" is just plain thrilling, a blend of Pink Floyd style grandeur and all-out metal hysteria, with introspective piano accompaniment shifting to deafening guitars in the blink of an eye. When the song comes to a careening halt with a typically Albini-esque roar of distorted guitars, the heart-stopping conclusion reminds you of the masterfully-executed flourish of guitars at the end of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt".
The Eye of Every Storm is brilliantly paced, as the instrumental "Shelter" provides a brief respite from all the lengthier songs, and the elegiac "I Can See You" brings things to a solemn conclusion. The band's metamorphosis into a more subdued band may have taken a few attempts, but Neurosis and Steve Albini have finally pulled it off, with surprisingly superb results. This album's breadth will test the patience of many people, but for those who like Tool's great Lateralus, the murky, doom jazz of Bohren & der Club of Gore, or Anathema's recent A Natural Disaster, The Eye of Every Storm is worthy of their attention. 2004 has been a very good year for metal in general, and this one ranks near the top of the heap.