Groundbreakers: Neurosis’ Souls at Zero
It is an incredible thing to see an album unleashed that completely alters the course of a musical scene. There are only inklings of its importance at first, those initially small thoughts that turn into hefty declarations of importance. “This is the next big thing” they say, or, “these guys are ready to alter music history. You think to yourself, with each successive listen, that you’re hearing something special. Of course, every album faces one great opponent in their battle for relevancy: Time. Truly, there has been no greater arbiter in the history of music than the almighty clock. Its judgment is rarely swift but it can certainly be brutal, striking down even the most promising bands and albums into obscurity, only ever to be seen again by our own Christian Molenaar.
These albums act like a child with the musical scene as their play-doh, shaping and shifting with an imagination unbound. In heavy metal today, there was perhaps no more important child with play-doh than a young Neurosis. After two decent-but-unremarkable albums of hardcore, these Oakland racket makers raised their middle fingers to their peers and loudly declared “fuck all y’all” while riding off into the sunset in order to record Souls at Zero, an album that set the tone for heavy metal for decades to come.
I’m not old enough to remember the release of Souls at Zero. I was 3 when it dropped, and while I would love to brag about having a super awesome memory and being birthed into this world with wicked musical sensibilities, that would be a falsehood and I just cannot be the one to bring a Brian Williams-esque scenario on this here toilet. I came into metal knowing Neurosis as the folkish, somewhat somber dealers of sonic heft that we know today, the world already molded by their contributions. While it might be difficult for most of us to imagine a world without them (mainly those of us who weren’t adults for the majority of their career thus far), it is easy to see how we got here.
Souls at Zero opens with a subtly ominous bell and quote before erupting into a pummeling whirlwhind of pinch harmonics and wah, slowly fading into a haunting clean melody before the distortion comes back for round 2. This is not the same band that recorded Pain of Mind or Word as Law. There are still traces of their hardcore sound present, including some really aggressive moments (The aforementioned start to “To Crawl Under One’s Skin” and the midsection of “A Chronology for Survival” jump to mind). The sound overall though is a much more measured approach than the Neurosis of old. The songs are slowed down and allowed to breathe with moments of acoustic respite that really let the pained wails of Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till shine through. Perhaps the most important aspect of the album is the tribal drumming of Jason Roeder, best displayed in “The Web”. It sounds absolutely primal and adds a whole new layer of depth and heft to an ambitious new venture. None of this is to downplay the importance of Dave Edwardson, whose basslines rumble along as wickedly as his bellow, or Simon McIlroy whose keyboards add an indispensable texture to the proceedings. Every member plays such a vital role to Souls at Zero. Oh, and have I mentioned the most beautiful flute interlude you’ll ever hear in a metal song?
While the album alone is worth all of the praise heaped upon it, it is the influence from it that is truly astounding. It seems more and more rare to come across an interview where a band ISN’T influenced by Neurosis and the sounds they introduced here. Mastodon, Tool, Pelican, Baroness, Old Man Gloom, and on and on. There are some bands that even owe their whole career to the sound Neurosis pioneered here. I know I’m repeating myself, but the importance of this album simply can’t be overstated. In the earliest parts of a decade marked by the biggest acts selling out, the worst acts getting huge and the underground being dominated by death metal, Souls at Zero offered something new. It was a peak into a glorious future, so let’s celebrate this album. 23 years later it feels as vital as ever. All I ask is that you please play it at the appropriate level.