Steve Von Till – A Life Unto Itself
Everything about the members of Neurosis happens on their own terms. Not only has their music remained unbridled by the constraints of commercial expectations or genre boundaries, but they also remain autonomous in nearly every other facet of their business. They run their own label and, with the exception of their upcoming American tour, they’ve spent the last 15 years limiting their live appearances to off-one shows and festivals. Their high degree of independence makes Neurosis a fascinating band to follow, but also makes the band prone to vanish for years on end. Be thankful then that the band's two singers, Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till, have extensive bodies of work outside of their primary creative vehicle. A Life Unto Itself, the latest release from Von Till, does more than just scratch the itch for fans of the singer's gravelly baritone. It also opens up a fresh lens to view his main band through.
Listen to A Life Unto Itself here.
Framing A Life Unto Itself and Von Till only in relation to Neurosis is a limiting narrative to be sure. Even using Von Till's bandmate Scott Kelly as a primary comparison seems short sighted; Kelly's side projects like Shrinebuilder and Corrections House have been supergroup collaborations, Von Till's work under his own name as well as his ambient releases as Harvestman have been solitary affairs. Von Till’s new record, like its predecessors, is strong enough to stand on its own, and will likely appeal to fans of moody and contemplative folk music that may have little interest in getting their brains scrambled by Through Silver In Blood. That said, to pretend that Von Till's work in Neurosis has no bearing on his solo output would be a thought experiment unlikely to produce useful results.
Viewing Von Till's solo albums in the context of his body of work as a whole allows both sides to illuminate each other. Consider for example that Von Till's emergence as a solo artist in the early 2000's lines up with Neurosis's decision to stop touring full time, as well as the band’s move away from densely multilayered industrial cacophony towards the more spacious and melodic sound that they've worked in for the last decade. It isn't too much of a reach to suggest that these two nearly simultaneous shifts in creative direction are linked on some level. After opting out of the grueling and emotionally taxing act of being a touring musician in favor of settling down it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that Von Till's music would become less violent and abrasive.
It's only appropriate then, that A Life Unto Itself is heavily concerned with self-imposed isolation. Like Phil Elverum, another Pacific North-Westerner who walks the line between folk and outre metal, Von Till attempts to define himself in relation to the vast natural world that surrounds him. Whether he's trapped in the expanse of the open ocean on “Known But Not Named” or awestruck by the majesty of a forested mountain range on the album's title track, Von Till finds himself diminished and humbled by the world around him. This theme is hardly unique in the world of folk music, but Von Till's solemn and battered baritone gives his take on these well-worn trope an air of legitimacy and weight that a younger singer would fail to capture.
Attempting to find meaning and mystical significance in the natural world is a touchstone of Von Till's work in Neurosis as well. The cryptic questioning at the end of "In Your Wings" isn't a far cry from the snake god that Scott Kelly prostrates himself in front of on The Eye Of Every Storm. By presenting these same images and themes in a more naturalistic context, Von Till reveals the way that Neurosis are in many ways just as tied to a tradition of folksy psychedelia as they are to the harrowing visions of Swans.
Lyrical themes aren't the only thing that Von Till has carried over from his "day job." While his previous solo records have taken a much more brisk pace, A Life Unto Itself adopts the slow and methodical phrasing of the last few Neurosis records. Von Till is clearly enamored with the sound of a guitar on the last legs of its sustain. When he reaches the chorus of the "A Life Unto Itself" he leaves plenty of space between each phrase so that his guitar and the surrounding string arrangements can hover and fade, much like the trails of distortion and decay that Neurosis lean on for their more meditative songs. The songs on this record are long, all closing in the range of five to seven minutes. Von Till is in no rush here, letting each verse breathe at a pace appropriate to the sonic world he's constructed.
This deliberation makes it difficult for Von Till to establish any real narrative flow on a lyrical level, which makes it hard for the record's back half to distinguish itself after the listener has settled into the album's atmosphere. As such, there's no song on A Life Unto Itself that sticks out as a lyrical achievement the way "Breathe" did on 2002’s If I Should Fall To The Field. But where this album falters as a singer/songwriter exercise, it excels as a tapestry of evocative and sparse arranging. Unlike his previous solo records, A Life Unto Itself makes tasteful use of slide guitar to provide a sorrowful countermelody to Von Till's voice. Elsewhere, solo violins mark their presence in a manner more in line with traditional celtic folk music than anything in the purview of Neurosis's contemporaries. Von Till even expands beyond the limitations of acoustic instruments on the synth heavy "Night Of The Moon." It speaks volumes to the consistency of Von Till's songwriting that this change in style doesn't feel like a breach in the records tone but rather a natural extension of it.
"Night Of The Moon" is especially interesting because it is unlike anything Neurosis have ever done, even at their most abstract. For a band that has found ways to reinvent itself consistently over the course of a nearly three decade-long career, the idea that its members can still strike new ground is undoubtedly exciting. Though Von Till has mellowed out considerably since his days of demolishing unsuspecting meatheads as Ozzfest he remains just as vital a songwriter.
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