Fox Theater, Oakland
Nov. 17, 2012
A Neurosis concert is always an event, as auspicious an occasion as a visit from a religious or political leader. By retiring from the road without ever disbanding, the band has generated a massive amount of enthusiasm for annual visits that are consistently apocalyptic, soul-crushing affairs. Tonight the band is playing its hometown of Oakland, at the regal Fox Theater, and it's sweetened an already sugary pot by inviting Canadian sci-fi prog metal veterans Voivod for an equally rare stateside appearance. The added bonus of Eugene, Ore.'s indomitable YOB opening the proceedings sends this bill into once-in-a-lifetime territory, causing fans from around the world to sigh and moan for months online about what lucky ducks we are here in the Bay.
It's only fitting that a Neurosis concert should be preceded by 36 hours of stormy weather that hadn't let up by the time YOB took the stage at eight. On a lesser bill this band would steal the show handily. In concert, its idiosyncratic doom metal is all about weight and impact, each chordal slab striking like a physical phenomenon that demands confrontation. Within those death blows lies harmonic intricacy you'd be forgiven for missing live, but it's what makes YOB's records truly soar. The 40-minute set is over too quickly but for the rare honor that follows.
For those who equate the lingua franca of metal with '80s thrash, Voivod is the stuff of legend. Through records like Killing Technology and Nothingface, Voivod's name spread throughout the metal underground with a reverent whisper rather than a scream. Tonight is the first time many long-time fans of the band are seeing it perform. But the group's familiar sound of endearingly obtuse riffs, sudden rhythmic shifts, and clear punky vocals somehow got lost in the Fox's live sound. It's unclear what the culprit was in this case, whether a bad live mix or amplification ill-suited for the size of the room, but it hindered Voivod's infectiously enthusiastic set at several points. Still it was hard to hear classics like "Forgotten in Space" and "Voivod" live for the first time and not get swept up by the momentum. The band ended with its enduring cover of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine," excusing all aural shortcomings.
The lights dimmed, and a deep, churning drone introduced Neurosis to the audience for a set that was thoughtful, reflective, and notably less feral than usual. The band focused almost exclusively on material from its just-released Honor Found in Decay, whose songs reaffirm Neurosis' intensely conflicted emotional tumult with an almost serene mellowness. This stately song cycle, like Given to the Rising before it, continues to map the evolving maturity of the group's slow-burning autumnal phase.
Sonically, the set is a testament to why tonight's bill works so well. Neurosis reintroduces the heavy chordal stabs as established by YOB, but through more elaborately wrought gestures. The headliner also takes the complex chord voicings and the abrupt changes of Voivod but slows them to a lurch, mining each move. As utterly unique as it's always sounded, Neurosis is in a perpetual state of homage, always borrowing the brilliance of comrades, forebears, and offspring alike, but reprocessing it through its own morbid mill.
With notable exceptions, such as "Times of Grace" and the crushing title track off "Given to the Rising," Saturday's set focused on new material. The audience was appreciative, if noticeably stoic. An enduring underground band like Neurosis has similarly enduring fans with underground palates who won't readily cop to wishing for more "hits." Still, any deserved grumbling to that effect was minor in light of the quality of the performance and the overall caliber of acts this evening. We left with a feeling of wanting a little bit more, but such is the fallout when a once-in-a-lifetime event ends up being just an amazing show.
Observation 1: Since metal went "wide," your faithful reporter -- with his close-cropped hair and multi-colored wardrobe -- is no longer the squarest-looking guy at metal shows.
Observation 2: The Fox has an extremely friendly and un-surly staff.
Observation 3: The Fox's poorly ventilated smoking "chamber" is the best inadvertent anti-smoking PSA of all time.