Sound — 9
With as long and storied of a history as sludge/post-metallers Neurosis have, it's amazing that they can have a sound that still sounds fresh to this day, and continue to inspire and influence (including some particularly huge bands like Mastodon), and "Fires Within Fires" is just the latest slab of super-heavy, sludgy, slightly progressive and, at times, even quite melodic metal.
The opening track, "Bending Light," is anchored by one of the doomiest riffs of 2016 by far, dripping in distortion and featuring ever so slightly out-of-tune bends, and it just feels like the weight of a million suns is pulling you in. Though its length is just shy of the eight minute mark, it actually feels much shorter, and you could feel like a track like this could go on forever without any issue. It's simple, but it really gets the point across, and it just feels like an all around amazing opener for the album, and it really sets the tone. Clean guitars start "A Shadow Memory," only to be followed by even more doomy riffage, along with Scott Kelly's bellow. The shortest song on the album at 6:40, it certainly isn't hit single material, but that's for the best, considering the really excellent atmosphere provided by the juxtaposition of the crushing riff and the clean guitar parts. The way the tempo picks up during the instrumental section reminds you that this is, above all, a completely human performance, as well.
"Fire Is the End Lesson" opens with the kind of harmonized chordal riff that shows how the band clearly inspired the likes of Mastodon, and has some amazing vocal call-and-response work. The middle section contains some brilliant guitar riff and lead guitar interplay as well, and is just one of the overall most amazing sections of the record. "Broken Ground" slows things down a bit with some cleaner vocals and more melodic guitar playing, slowly building up in heaviness, coming to a climax later on in the tune, and closing out with a nice clean fade-out. "Reach" is another slow-burner, closing out the album with an epic, dark, but softer tone. It's a much slower track to build up, and it has some really nice lead guitar parts in the middle as well, along with some really beautiful vocal melodies. The heavier riffs kick in about eight minutes in, and it's worth the wait, because the heavy part is all the more crushing coming after that.
The songwriting on this record is simply sublime, with a lot of sections that repeat but never get dull, and lots of amazing textural playing from all the involved musicians. Scott Kelly's and Steve Von Till's guitar playing often blurs the line between traditional "lead" and "rhythm" roles, with each providing their own texture to the parts, and often harmonizing, even when playing chords. Dave Edwardson (bass) and Jason Roeder (drums) provide a solid, groovy rhythm section, and Noah Landis' keyboard playing is subtle and usually focused on providing a bed of warbly sound effects that really adds to the psychedelic, spaced-out ambience of the music. Production is handled by Steve Albini, and even despite the crushing heaviness of the riffs, he manages to keep the production clean and fairly reined in. At only five songs and just about 41 minutes long, this is one of the shortest Neurosis albums in quite some time, so it's also quite easy to digest for new listeners to this band.
Lyrics — 9
Neurosis' lyrics have frequently been dark and gritty, and this album is no exception. Scott Kelly's massive vocal style is used to its fullest potential on this record, though he does get to flex his clean vocal muscles on "Reach" and "Broken Ground." Lyrically, the album is full of typical sort of dark, sludge metal imagery such as this verse from "Broken Ground": "The wood burns dark and cloaks the rain/See what we have wrought again/We seek the sun in endless night/And burn in its forbidden light," and this one from "Reach": "I grasp our failure it slips through my hands/Our heartbreaking blindness seeks to atone/These vessels of suffering in my eyes/Head to the mountains and choose where to die." The clean singing during these two songs is great, and may remind some people of later-era Phil Anselmo or Troy and Brent from Mastodon. Scott's clean vocals are deep and really engaging, while his bellowing yell is completely captivating. This is definitely one of my favourite harsher styles of vocal and I absolutely love the way Scott uses it throughout the album.
Overall Impression — 9
Having released so many masterpieces in their time, Neurosis shows no signs of stopping with "Fires Within Fires." Though some thought the band's folkier explorations on the last album, "Honor Found in Decay," were a little off-kilter and perhaps not to all of their fans' tastes, their experimentation has paid off with the release of "Fires Within Fires," keeping the levels of heaviness high and incorporating psychedelic sounscapes and melodies without coming off as cheesy or contrived.
Overall, this album is really just a great, simple post/sludge metal album, and if you're a fan of doomy sounding, low-tuned, downtempo metal, this is going to be the perfect album for you. The production sounds huge and the album as a whole is in-your-face, without ever resorting to showing off. And its short length means it never overstays its welcome, and it almost feels like the album is over too soon. There's still a lot of subtlety on the record, as well, from the spacey, atmospheric keyboards to the layers of guitar during the album's calmer parts.
This is a really good record, and absolutely worth a listen.