If you were unpleasantly surprised by 2001's A Sun That Never Sets and even further alienated by 2003's The Eye of Every Storm, fearing that the long-reigning, wildly influential Neurosis (can you name a post-hardcore or metal band that hasn't been influenced by them directly? -- they've done everything!) were finally sinking into the post-rock sunset, Given to the Rising should buoy your spirits considerably and bring back your swagger. Something transpired between the creepy-crawly, relatively introverted quietism of the last two recordings and this beast, recorded at Electrical Audio in Chicago with Steve Albini, who's been on board with Neurosis forever (this is the only band he works with that has a real bass presence on its records; ever notice that?). The evidence is in the opening title track, which simply explodes out of the gate with no intro, no sonic weirdness, no pretentious gradual build; it's all big-pregnant with tension riffing, electronic noise whir, and vocalist Steve Von Till punching through that punishing guitar, drum, and bass throb mix: "We stand encircled by wind and fire/Our deepest lies return and turn upon us....." Oh the glory! This cut has its dynamic moments, where it all gets deathly quiet for a moment, but you will forgive yourself for knowing what's coming -- the trademark chaotic roar, back and forth for nearly nine minutes. The leadoff is no fluke, either. Where "Fear and Sickness" may start quieter and slower, that astonishing wall of unearthly noise is firmly entrenched in the backbone of Neurosis' sound. There is an aggression here that seems to have been kept in restraint for a few years and has returned now to claim its proper place. The contrast of quiet/loud dynamics and genuinely creepy, skin-crawling ambience has its place in cuts like "At the End of the Road," a kind of reference point to records such as Through Silver in Blood and even Times of Grace, but all the slowly developing drone and sparse tribal pounding that go on seemingly interminably become something else, something so completely sinister, full of loss, pain, and rage that they are barely contained by the framework of the song itself. Von Till is growling, but he's buried under that cage until five minutes in when it all just comes rushing out at once: payback in unhinged downtuned guitar terror. The drum line is the same, only a hell of a lot louder. Just when the thing is at the breaking point it goes up not a notch, but into the damned red!
"Hidden Faces" begins in a shimmering, gloomy atmosphere reminiscent of something Jesus might have tried at the beginning with swirling banks of church organs and keyboards swelling under the tom-toms and open-chorded guitar feedback, but gets mashed underneath just a few moments later in fury. "Water Is Not Enough" continues as its brethren -- unholy loud, jumping out of the gate with a wall-of-guitar monstrance as ugly as early Killing Joke. "Distill (Watching the Swarm)" is part and parcel of Neurosis' trademark sound taken to riffing extremes. That sound -- now so common -- is so dense and punishing here that there is little or no room to breathe for the listener, and the track is over nine minutes long. Finally, "Origin," the nearly 12-minute cut that takes the album out, begins funereally, as if there is something approaching from just out of clear sight. It's a form, pronounced and dark as the black maw of hell, but textured by layers of keyboards and deep tom-tom thrumming. Von Till sings in his possessed baritone, while some voice from the edges answers him from the well of echo and sinister noise hovering just beneath the spare guitars: "All my spirits come through me when I bleed...." It travels, meandering in from edge to edge, one step at a time building its feeling of dread while keeping its tempo and sparseness until it seems it will whisper out this way. No. With about two and a half minutes to go, it screams and howls in metallic agony, taking you out on the same delightful swell of masochistic pain you came in with. This is a one hell of an album, better than anyone had any right to expect, and one of the high moments in a career filled with them. Neurosis have no need of caricatures or "more evil than thou" posturing. They are in a league of their own, and from the sounds of Given to the Rising, will remain there for some time.