A gnarly record of growing pains.
Neurosis’s debut LP, 1987’s Pain of Mind, was sludgy and messy crust punk that mainly focused on how humans have little, if any, control over their own minds. If a thesis statement could be extracted, it would be, “Welcome to the world of your mindless life/ Away from the reality of your lifeless mind.” Neurosis released a proper follow up to Pain in 1990 with The Word as Law. It saw the band branch out from their punk roots with longer, fluctuating songs. The album—long out of print and now newly remastered—functions as a bridge between what the band was (hardcore boundary-testers) and what it would become (genre-testing experimentalists).
Word is a gnarly record of growing pains for the quintet that nonetheless remains a rewarding listen if one has a little patience. What’s immediately obvious is the shift in song structure. Word offers fewer tracks with much longer runtimes than the band’s debut, appearing to resemble a slow burn more so than the white-hot anger of Pain. But Word isn’t an entirely new approach, as it retains some of its predecessor’s headlong sprinting. The fantastic one-two punch of turbulent sludge-punk openers “Double-Edged Sword” and “The Choice,” joined on side B with the sub-minute tantrum “Insensitivity,” demonstrate that Neurosis’s music could still be bold and defiant and sit comfortably next to Nausea and Amebix in a collection.
The (eventual) metamorphosis begins to reveal itself with the rest of the album. While they didn’t use drone or industrial elements here, songwriters Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till and Dave Edwardson start to wander from their early days. Instead of thrashing about, Word feels uncomfortable and self-conscious as it plods and broods in molten arrangements where a song’s tempo could double or halve at any moment. The band even slows to a crawl on the shrieking and tortured “To What End?” as if to ask “What’s happening to us?” upon noticing in the mirror that they suddenly grew a third arm. The uncertainty of it all makes for an engaging listen, even if it feels at times like a cheap ploy.
Upon the album’s original release in 1990, Kelly, Von Till and Edwardson had yet to grow as lyricists, though. Clichéd gripes about sheeple (“Sacrifice your security/ Sell your identity, integrity/ Give ‘til it hurts, give some more, give it all away/ Sacrifice yourself”), control paranoia (“The illusion of freedom/ That will blacken your heart’s blood/ And dull your senses/ Plugged into deception) and anti-capitalism screeds (“We learn to accept the petty rewards that we get/ From the feudal system of our modern day wage-slavery”) were unfortunately carried over from Pain.
Yet that itself is a gripe, since Neurosis’s main draw was and is their music. Starting with the next album, 1992’s Souls at Zero, the band morphed into the brilliant post-metal oddity it has been for a quarter-century. But in order to that, it first had to shed its skin. Whether the goal was to surprise fans or themselves is debatable, and that’s part of the charm of The Word as Law: the band clearly wanted to challenge themselves, but were unsure where and how to do it. Rarely can a creature be seen transforming in real time, but it’s a sight to behold when they do.