Reissues of long out of print recordings are essentially historical artifacts. Albums returning from the oblivion of folded record labels and legal ownership battles tend to reflect forgotten and neglected moments of bands at creatively formative moments in their careers. In particular for metal and hardcore acts, the reissuing of rare and discontinued records typically gives insight into a DIY past of indie labels, lo-fi recordings, and, occasionally, early experiments in breaking out of calcified stereotypes of the genres.
Initially released in 1990 by the Bay area-based Lookout! Records, Neurosis’ The Word As Law represents the moment when the band transitioned from a by-the-book West Coast hardcore outfit into a one more adept at toying with sonic textures and song structures. Originally issued solely as a vinyl release, Law went out of print in the ’90s and languished in circulation purgatory after Lookout! closed up shop for good in 2012. Available for the first time in decades courtesy of Neurosis’ label Neurot, The Word As Law reveals a band that didn’t step away from their hardcore origins as much as surpassed expectations with daring slow tempos and surprising musical turns.
Opening track “Double-Edged Sword” begins with four clean guitar chords, chiming out like a grandfather clock intoning the beginning of a ritual. A stark contrast to the shout vocals and riff-worshiping to follow, but entirely prophetic of the new direction Neurosis envisioned for their sophomore release. Tracks like “The Choice” and “Insensitivity” bring the same hardcore sensibilities, but with a slightly more mature edge with their shifts in tempo and mood. There’s still plenty of Napalm Death-inspired hardcore thrash throughout The Word As Law, but Neurosis shows early signs of evolving into something more involved than a dyed-in-the-wool west coast aggro outfit.
Experimenting with layered acoustic guitars and tempo shifts, tracks like “To What End?” and “Obsequious Obsolescence” demonstrate Scott Kelly and company pushing their musical boundaries beyond traditional two-and-a-half minute stompers. Occasionally, the limitations of their technology hold back the reach of their vision. The grittiness of the analog recording suits the metal and hardcore moments, but a handful of experimental moments–clean tracked guitars, keyboard background–don’t blend as well as they would have with a bigger studio budget.
These moments reveal a band wanting more than a coast-centric scene could offer. Lookout! Records had a knack for fostering Bay Area bands until they were ready for a commercial break out (Green Day, Rancid, the Donnas, etc.). The lo-fi sound works in clubs and dive bars, but here Neurosis was thinking of a bigger sonic picture. “Common Inconsistencies” pummels the listener, no question, but the left-right panning screams and bookends of static and feedback show how Neurosis envisioned a bigger sonic picture in their evolving sound.
Compared to today’s metal and hardcore scenes, The Word As Law feels primitive, but context reveals its subtle risks and experiments. Sculpting feedback into musical material and toying with tempos more akin to doom and stoner metal was not as common then as it is today. While not for everyone, experimental metal aficionados and die-hard Neurosis fans will savor this glimpse into the early days of an extreme music behemoth in the making.