Steve Von Till in a contemplative moment (Photo by Onelouderphoto.com)
Neurosis + Mastodon
Brooklyn Masonic Temple
January 25, 2008
If the Freemasons really do secretly control the entire world, they also do a pretty good job of hiding it, at least in Brooklyn. It’s another story in Baltimore, where I once saw Godspeed You Black Emperor play a pretty spectacular show in the local Masonic Temple. Baltimore’s Masonic Temple is a huge, majestic domed building full of cryptic symbolism: Masonic icons painted on the inside of the dome, weird artifacts in guarded class cases, exactly 23 steps leading up to the front door outside. GYBE sounded absolutely at home in a regally mysterious space like this. Their long crescendos had plenty of space to echo and roll, and their expansive instrumental hymns took on a devotional, almost religious weight in that room. As a functional unit, the long-running and hugely influential Bay Area doom metal crew works a lot like GYBE, another crew of cabalistic crusties pushing quiet-to-loud dynamics to their logical extreme, spinning off into a long succession of side-project subsidiaries, and centering their live shows around screen-projected visuals. But Neurosis’s show at the Masonic Temple in Fort Greene didn’t have the same ambiguously spiritual air as that GYBE show, largely because the Fort Greene Temple doesn’t feel like it’s at the convergence of ambient mystical energies the way the Baltimore one does. It’s just a handsome old building with a stage and a balcony and a big room and a crudely rendered mural down in the basement smoking section. It felt something like a bigger version of the community centers that Neurosis probably came up playing back when they were still a scrappy late-80s hardcore band, not the sort of place where Congressmen and CEOs throw on hooded robes and stage candlelit Druidic rituals. But Neurosis’s Friday-night show at the Temple was still something special, largely because Neurosis is now quite possibly the loudest band I’ve ever seen.
The five guys in Neurosis walked onstage on Friday night not saying a word, barely looking at the audience. They’re an intimidating lot: uniformly black-clad, tatted-up, bearded, muscular, huge. The band has two frontmen, Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till, and both of them have an otherworldly intensity in their eyes; Von Till, in particular, looks like he could set paper on fire just by staring at it for a few seconds. (He also strongly resembles a thugged-out Rasputin. Von Till works a day-job as an elementary school teacher, and I have to imagine he gives his students serious nightmares.) They entered to sculpted ambient keyboard drones, then suddenly switched into a titanic rumbling of a riff, so punishingly loud that I had to retreat about twenty feet back from the stage before it became bearable. And the night went on like that: long stretches of ominously ethereal quiet that flared up and out whenever the band locked into another huge, slow groove. Neurosis’s songs are long, but they don’t really build gradually. Instead, they swung suddenly from one extreme to another, usually only giving a brief hint that something’s about to happen, like a drum-crack a beat before the hammer drops. And when the loud parts come, they were huge and immersive, like the band had decided to encircle and swallow the crowd. It was always fun to look around the crowd during those big-riff moments, to see hundreds of heads bobbing hard. Behind the band, Josh Graham’s scratchy black-and-white projections drove home that this was elemental force-of-nature stuff: mushroom-clouds slowly bloomed, pupils dilated, horses fled some offscreen thing. Maybe I shouldn’t keep harping on the parallels from Friday’s Neurosis show and a Godspeed thing from four years ago, but one intersection struck me hard. As Godspeed was finishing up, they lurched into one atypically euphoric movement, and the word Hope came up on the screen behind them. It was sort of a beautiful moment. The last image I remember seeing at the Neurosis show was a different thing entirely: a negative image of two wolves running at the camera, their eyes flashing, nothing resembling hope anywhere. Neurosis stretched out their big crashing final note to something like five minutes, and by the time it was over, my chest hurt.
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The members of Neurosis never said a word to the audience between songs; they didn’t need to, and it would’ve broken the spell. Mastodon mostly stayed similarly silent throughout their opening set; samples of horror-movie dialogue generally stand in for actual human interaction at their shows. But guitarist Brent Hints broke the silence before the band’s last song, telling the crowd that this show was one that they’d always remember. Mastodon is a more popular and famous band than Neurosis, so Mastodon’s set felt like tribute payed to elders. Next to Neurosis’s slow-burn sludge-grooves, Mastodon’s mathy frag-grenade assault felt nervous, almost fidgety. The volume was a whole lot lower when the younger band was onstage, too; it’s not often that fucking Mastodon is the band to lull a crowd into a false sense of security. Even in that diminished role, though, Mastodon was in fine form, just ripping shit the way they always do. The intricacies of their sound sometimes got lost in the cavernous venue; it’s not a room built for shredding. But the opening riff from “Blood and Thunder” still exploded like a landmine, and the guys in the band still carried themselves like gurgling swamp-monsters. When a band like this is happy and willing to play a secondary role, it’s a pretty good indication that serious things are about to happen.