Miguel / Neurosis

Kaleidoscope Dream / Honor Found in Decay

(RCA / Neurot; 2012)

By Christopher Alexander | 28 November 2012

On paper—as on record, in their careers and ambitions, and even as people—Neurosis and Miguel Jontel Pinmental are absolutely unlike each other. There’s been a lot of musical cross-pollination, synthesis, and general boundary blurring over the past twenty-five years or so that Neurosis have been active and Miguel has been alive, but even in 2012 (where there’s such a thing as Jeff the Brotherhood and Insane Clown Posse recording a piece of Mozart doggerel produced by Jack White—holy shit that sentence fragment is a statement of fact and not a Mad Libs outtake) it’s hard to imagine these two cohabitating the same planet, let alone the same playlists. This is compounded by the fact that both are beloved in such a way that would seem to resist assimilation into more general, or pop (or, mine) audience. Both have a reputation of authenticity within their respective core audiences—Neurosis, especially, are the veritable Velvet Underground of cinematic down-tuned epic metal popularized by Isis, Mastodon, etc., whereas Miguel in his young career had a mini down-chart masterpiece in 2010 with “All I Want is You,” a dapped out, gauzy update of Brian McKnight. And yet both have made stunning and epic records in 2012 that are among the year’s best, and have found general audiences accordingly.

The Velvet Underground comparison is no joke: one is hard pressed to name an active band more respected and influential than Neurosis. No one is more responsible for the fusion of dirgey folk, tribal drum patterns, backwards-leaning tempos, and Blake-ian apocalyptic/ecstatic lyrical concerns that fueled 21st century metal’s resurgence, and no one has really improved on their formula. This kid knows what’s up:

(Laugh all you want, he still probably has more metal cred than I do. Besides, I agree, my Neurosis pick wouldn’t be between the deservedly beloved In Silver and Blood, though I would go with Enemy of the Sun)

The title of the band’s tenth album, Honor Found in Decay, couldn’t be more apt. Neurosis, at their best, find the coruscation under the corrosion, but on the extant album emphasize ringing low notes more than their signature dissonant chords. The result is something stately and dignified through the funereal repetition of epically monstrous riffs like the second halves of “We All Rage in Gold” and “My Heart for Deliverance.” The latter of which in particular has a chromatic, ringing descent that is bookended by savage, slashing upward chords, and it sounds like an annunciation of proceeding angels.

If that sounds like overwriting, I would argue back that this is the kind of imagistic music the band does so well: the full-force hurricane wind of the crescendo in “At the Well,” the charnel house horror of “Bleeding the Pig,” the, well, honor found in decay at the coda of “Casting of the Ages” (keyboardist and sound manipulator Noah Landis deserves particular credit for this passage, removing each instrument as if scraping the track off of the magnetic tape, calling attention to the mediated nature of the medium in a way few, if any, metal bands do). Famed Engineer Steve Albini, on his fifth album with the band, makes all of these sweeping cumulus chords three dimensional in the mix. If Honor Found in Decay has a typical problem in sequencing (a common problem in my favorite metal records, I hypothesize due to the genre’s suite-like, sectional composition as opposed to pop’s verse-chorus-verse cyclical nature), it also is a titanic, worthy statement in the band’s estimable catalog.

Neurosis could probably use a song title like “Pussy is Mine” to lighten things up (and no, “smoke from a gaping wound” doesn’t count), but it turns out that Miguel’s music tends toward humorless as well. The song in question, for example, is less the sort of Alpha Male, snap-my-fingers-and-come-here than a surprisingly sympathetic expression of the basest sort of possessive sexual jealousy. The premise of the song is one man’s post-coital meltdown to his friend-with-benefits, a plea for exclusivity for the sole benefit, it seems, of Miguel’s ego. The reconstructed male, latent Catholic, or involuntary celibate in this writer listens in extreme askance, but Miguel proves to be a gifted liar. He sells it, using the extremely spare backdrop of a single electric guitar and studio chatter as a balance for understated emoting.

Kaleidoscope Dream is being hailed in all corners as a triumph of production, and Miguel sounds fine on all of the big moments here: the brash, metallic synths leading into detuned jungle beat on “Don’t Look Back”; the warped Lionel Ritchie chords of single “Adorn”; the wash of heavenly vocal reverb that leans into the blasting drums of “Do You Like Drugs?” The radio-friendly “Use Me,” an understandable favorite of its author, features a drum pattern that sounds stolen from Radiohead’s ultra-primitive “Idioteque” underneath a snare drum treated with so much reverb that it sounds like a dumpster falling in an alley. The slippery hook over an indomitable four-five progression redefines sexual healing in terms so subtle Miguel’s aching vocal spells them out for you. It deserves to be a monster hit. But he, like his album, works best in its woozier, hushed moments: the aforementioned “Pussy is Mine,” the pleasantly aimless title track, where the emotional falsetto is rendered another harmless bird, or in the interpolation of the Zombies’ mighty “Time of the Season,” appended at the end of “Don’t Look Back” (get it!?).

Kaleidoscope Dream is the singer’s second album, and is of a piece with recent emotionally tender, downer-enthusiast R&B artists and producers like the Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Clams Casino, and (much as it pains me to say it) Drake. It is as of its time as Honor Found in Decay is out of it, the cultural moment of post-metal’s domination having given way to black and stoner metal. Yet both seem to me profound reflections of the wider world in 2012. Neurosis begins from a bleak place—the natural state of decay, wounds, intentionally ugly and low music—and creates something majestic, a way forward. It is a stubborn, patient sharpening of their craft. Miguel takes sex and clubbing and turns them into paeans to anxiety, fueled by the knowledge that this night, this sexual feeling, this drug experience, this craze for gauzy, legato R&B, has to by its nature end sooner rather than later. There is plenty to be furious about in 2012, but the fact that these albums have audiences and that, in some small way, they overlap is something to celebrate.