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The Wake

Scott Kelly

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Album Review

For Neurosis fans, the fact that the band's vocalist and bassist Scott Kelly and vocalist-guitarist Steve Von Till have both issued solo records at the same time, is either a boon or an agony. The latter scenario is reserved for those who find the wait between band projects interminable already. Both men release sparse, barely produced recordings of deeply personal songs; both are acoustically based, and both are great. Kelly's The Wake is his second solo effort. The first was issued way back in 2001. Since that time Neurosis has released three studio albums, a live offering, and a few EPs, including one with Jarböe. The Wake reveals an incredible growth in Kelly's writing. This one feels at least as spontaneous as Spirit Bound Flesh, but at the same time, the narrative skill he's been developing since that time is admirable; he's learned to get down to very specific and frighteningly accessible terms concerning the current state of affairs in his own soul. Certainly this is confessional songwriting, but it doesn't subscribe to storytelling conventions. In fact, there isn't anything studied about this set. It's more that his head is crystal clear and he can get down on tape whatever is happening the moment. As if certain songs built up to a point of cathartic, late-night soul baring, and he responded fearlessly. Without sophomoric emotions that result in false vulnerability or the easy the crutch of rage, Kelly looks into the soul's own dark night and comes out with the details of the journey while in it — think of a modern-day, first-person Dante's Inferno.

Kelly plays acoustic guitar on every track, almost haltingly at times, laying down each chord change, hell, each down stroke, to coincide with each line of his revelation. With just enough spooky reverb on his voice and guitar, with touches of lap steel and bass on certain tunes, he gets right to it on "The Ladder in My Blood," the disc's opening cut: "I'll walk through fire/For you/Your fever, it cools me/The ladder/in my blood shows the way/to my place/next to you/And I remember/how you held them/your eyes/pierce the sky/beckoning..." There are chord changes that take place between lines, drawing out the lyric in this hunted love song so the listener is sitting on the edge of the chair waiting for the next one to fall. Despite its quiet, plodding motion, its sense of musical repetition as flow, it's beautifully unsettling. His deep, brooding growl is laced with openness and foreboding, all the while saying "yes," to whatever comes. The threshold he is being invoked to here; it's one he'll willingly cross no matter the cost. "Figures," the next track, is even slower, with few changes, there is a line that becomes the very truth that this album turns on: "...Will time forgive me?/Or will I walk in shadows..." This is a very real, very startling and rhetorical question, one that can only be answered outside the realm of these songs, outside the album as a whole, but paradoxically, deep inside the heart of the song's protagonist who is nearly praying for the shell of pitch and matte black to crack itself wide open and scream its answer.

The distorted steel guitar on "Saturn's Eyes" adds a textured, near screaming wail of dread and drama to the already wide-open universe at the heart of the song, and in the grain of the voice of its singer. Kelly's world is so endless, so unflinching — "...the patterns bring truth/the stars bring vengeance..." — that it would be terrifying for most to whisper, let alone sing to an anonymous audience and a deeply impersonal world where the spirit, flesh, death, and resurrection do not have parts to play, but are part and parcel of the same thing. It doesn't matter which three songs you pick, or which one; this isn't a horizontally linear journey; it's verticality pushed in both directions simultaneously so as not to limit the soul's language as it comes to the fore and is revealed in Kelly's songs. In so many ways, songs like these, or "Catholic Blood" or set closer "Remember Me" can sometimes suggest the aftermath of a human life's consciousness in the complete sense of spirit, in the stage when the body dies, ceases to exist — where memory and present tense are part and parcel of one another as they enter the first glimpses of the unknowable world of the future. For nearly 35 minutes, Kelly wraps the listener in a rough blanket of impure contradictory ruminations on the soul. In some ways, it is actually far more powerful than even the sonic attack that Neurosis brings on because there are no distractions between the songwriter and the listener, no sonic membrane, no protection, just the report from the dark frontiers of where one has journeyed to and returned from to offer without sentimentality, desire, or remorse just what has been found revealed there. Kelly's naked, sung poetry refuses artifice or comfort, and stands in the vision itself: The Wake belongs in the company of Bill Fay's Time of the Last Persecution, Current 93's Black Ships Ate the Sky, Simon Finn's Pass the Distance, and Tom Rapp's Journal of the Plague Year.

The Wake, Scott Kelly
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