You usually need to know a fair amount about Metal and the history of Metal to fully understand absolutely every point I will make, and having listened to the album will also help, but having a tab open on Wikipedia to intermittently check anything you don’t understand will help.
For this entry I have chosen the Neurosis album Times Of Grace. This album was released in 1999, was their sixth studio album, was their first to be produced by Steve Albani and has went on to become an important album in the history of metal, it is beloved by fans of Sludge Metal, by fans of Post-Metal and by fans of challenging and difficult music. It supposedly works even better when listened to alongside Tribes Of Neurot’s Grace album, but I have opted to try it on its own for this article.
I don’t know a huge deal about Post-Metal. I’ve heard a fair amount of Isis and a little bit of Red Sparrows, Pelican, Cult Of Luna, The Ocean and Russian Circles, but I never completely got into it or even listened to it all that carefully.
I similarly don’t know that much about Sludge. I listened to and loved Acid Bath’s When The Kite String Pops, but only about twice when I was trying out Spotify, I haven’t gotten around to buying a copy yet and so haven’t become as familiar with it as I’d like to be. I had also tried out Iron Monkey’s Our Problem and found it OK but a bit too repetitive. I have listened to bands who were influenced by Sludge or have a partly Sludge sound, such as Mastodon, Baroness, Red Fang, Black Tusk and Down… but have never been a massive fan of an actual Sludge band like Crowbar or Eyehategod, mostly by virtue of not having tried any yet.
My first exposure to Neurosis was through the album which followed Times Of Grace, 2001’s A Sun That Never Sets. When I heard it I had never heard the words ‘Sludge-Metal’ ‘Post-Metal’ or even ‘Progressive’ before and had no understanding of what any of them meant. Naturally I wasn’t prepared for what the album actually had to offer.
That album was incredibly slow, difficult and dense and I hated it in almost every way when I did first hear it. I could not make myself sit and listen to a whole track, and would fast-forward through it checking to see if it ever got faster while not really taking any of it in and generally not being in a receptive state of mind to begin with anyway. The music was there, certainly, but I had no idea how to process it and so I just assumed it was bad (something I would endevour not to do now as an adult).
From time to time I would be drawn to it once more however, and would constantly check it out again, poking at it mentally like a cat poking at a scrabble board, nominally experiencing it yet functionally confused due to being illiterate (OK, that stolen metaphor doesn’t work all that well here, I’ll admit), just trying to understand why exactly Magazine’s had claimed that it was similar to Tool when it was the farthest thing in the world from Tool to my unrefined ears. Not that I really understood Tool either at that early point, when I found their Claymation music videos too unsettling to watch all the way through.
However, upon becoming a full on fan of Mastodon around the time that I left school (I had enjoyed ‘March Of The Fire Ants’ every time it came on TV, but didn’t actually buy Remission until Leviathan had came out) I was in more of a position to enjoy Neurosis. Mastodon frequently claimed to love Neurosis in interviews and documentaries and so I once again gave that album a chance, heard the Mastodon similarities it contained and everything finally clicked, I began to enjoy it a little bit and have enjoyed it more upon each listen ever since. At some point after listening to it again after discovering Sleep’s Dopesmoker album, it doubly clicked and I began to like it a whole heap more than ever before.
I bought their Soverign EP around this time and really enjoyed it, so later that month I tried out a few other Neurosis efforts, such as the softer Through The Eye Of Every Storm and the proggier but more difficult Through Silver In Blood and hugely enjoyed parts of them, but stopped listening to them when I stopped using spotify, without having given them enough time to really really win me over as complete albums by giving them as many listens as they clearly would take to allow that to happen. I’m sure when I get around to picking up CD copies I may get past their difficult exterior with repeat listens.
Times Of Grace’s opening duo of intro ‘Suspended In Light’ and first song ‘The Doorway’ are both fairly accessible, in as much as dense sludgy Post-Metal tracks seven minutes in length can realistically be.
‘Under The Surface’ is similarly instant, with its tribal drumming first half and brilliant gear change at the four-minute mark, which utilizes what I assume must be bagpipes. Had I have heard this section first I may have understood the Tool comparisons a little better, although on reflection I do believe they may have been about both band’s extravagantly visual live shows and general boundary-pushing as opposed to any musical similarity.
After three tracks (but that is 18 minutes) I can tell that this is a good album. I suspect that had I have heard Time Of Grace as the first Neurosis album that I ever heard, I would have been a lot quicker to find the good in them, and would have been a lot more keen to explore the rest of the bands catalogue than I was back when I first heard A Sun That Never Sets.
I suspect it, but cannot be sure. I did discover A Sun That Never Sets before liking Mastodon, before liking any 1970s Prog Rock and before learning to enjoy any challenging music. I discovered it before I was ready, before I had patience. When I discovered Times Of Grace I had already been won over by A Sun That Never Sets, and by things like Van Der Graff Generator. I had become a huge fan of Scott Kelly’s vocals through Mastodon (where he frequently cameos) and began to like a few other bands with a Sludgy sound and excessive use of slow tempos.
If I was to level any complaint against Times Of Grace, it would be a lack of variety. A Sun That Never Sets has folky sections, acoustic guitars and funereally slow sections mixed into the Neurosis sound and The Eye Of Every Storm has a lot of contrast and some almost catchy parts (especially in its opening track ‘Burn’) and by comparison Times Of Grace is comparatively a little too samey. ‘Away’ goes some way to correcting this however, along with the shorter tracks like ‘Exist’ and the aforementioned ‘Suspended In Light,’ so it isn’t actually a major problem. The only other thing is that the second half of the album would make a lot better an opening than the first.
‘Belief’ would be a great entry point for someone who had never heard Neurosis before. It is closer in style to the Isis end of the Post-Metal spectrum than anything that I had began with, and is soft enough and fast enough not to scare away a new listener while still hinting at what the band are capable of. It is at this point the album really turns around and tracks become a lot more instant.
‘The End Of Harvest’ delivers the Neurosis sound with a more intense sense of purpose and energetic playing style than the first three songs did and the brief ‘Descent’ which follows makes use of the bagpipes in a more traditional way with marching-snare drum accompaniment before developing into a dense tribal-sounding psychedelic workout.
I guess that Time Of Grace doesn’t have a spectacular highlight in the same way that ‘Burn,’ ‘A Season In The Sky,’ ‘Through Silver In Blood,’ ‘Crawl Back In’ and ‘The Tide’ all jump out at me on other records, but it is definitely the most consistent and easy to like Neurosis album that I have heard thus far. If I had have been in control I would have changed the order of the tracks around so as to lead with strength, but otherwise I have little in the way of negative things to say about the album.
I can also tell, by virtue of my history with other similarly difficult music that this is an album that would benefit tremendously from repeat listens, which falls outside the remit of First Impressions, so maybe by the time you read this I’ll have grown a lot closer to the album.
When compared to things I’ve listened to for this series like Operation Mindcrime and Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Times Of Grace isn’t at the top of albums that I outright enjoyed the most, and it isn’t even my favourite Neurosis album thus far (The Eye Of Every Storm still holds that position) but it is nonetheless an impressive record and I’m glad to have finally heard it. If someone new to Metal asked me about it for some reason, I’d give them a lot of music before hand as a primer, such as Mastodon’s Remission, Sleep’s Dopesmoker and maybe something like Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, but it would still receive a positive recommendation overall… despite its difficulty.