Steve Von Till should require no long introduction for any folk or metal-enthused reader here as he shares with Scott Kelly a decades-long leadership in one of the most important metal projects of their generation, Neurosis. Alongside his primary focus with these post-metal icons, starred like the night sky with numerous masterpiece compositions, he also finds enough time and artistic inspiration to sustain personal works in the dark folk/alt. country vein under his own name. Not that this is an uncommon occurrence for Neurosis members—the band has been on a recording hiatus since 2012. During that time, they’ve either continued or given birth to a plethora of side-projects, swaying from apocalyptic folk to ambient, and from hardcore punk back to metal, with a bit of similarity to what Swans, to an even greater extent, have accomplished.
And now, Tom Waits orphans out there, lend me your ears because we may have something of interest here for you on this album. Indeed, on A Life unto Itself, Von Till unsurprisingly re-embraces his trademark dark acoustic sound and rediscovers paths once walked by legends like Townes Van Zandt, an element of his songwriting that has been present from the very beginning. Yet, he surprisingly now also pushes the boundaries forward, partially forgetting these compositional traditions (or better, letting them play the role of frame) and painting instead a very personal interpretation of what his breed of folk music should sound like, instilling his own personal touch. Still, the tribute once again paid to old-school country, blues, and traditional European folk surfaces, becoming the starting point for his own unique approach.
There’s more to tell, however; as always, as the history of Neurosis teaches us, the lyrics that are found on A Life unto Itself couldn’t be anything but an incontrovertible pillar to Von Till’s creation. After all, he’s not a young man anymore, and for sure he isn’t a shallow one. The album, as the title itself suggests, deals with existential themes that are neither vague nor in your face, and which reach impressive peaks of yearning, poetic lyricism. It is a distinct prose that follows life and death, their unfathomable mysteries, and the suffering that comes with them. Von Till stands in awe of the vastness of nature, faith, and love, creating music that is tangled among them and which reveals a soul that has been cursed with incredible depth, while on the other side being blessed with the extraordinary skill to exorcise pain with the highest tier of audial artistry.
A Life unto Itself begins with ‘In Your Wings’, a ballad that arises from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: an Americana song with an Irish heart, embellished by viola and steel pedal guitar which have been been respectively performed by Eyvind Kang and Jay Kardong, both of which are a constant presence throughout the entire album. Brief instances shine brighter when Von Till knits acoustic chords and embroiders melodic passages into a song that is otherwise sunk deep in a dark mood—one that is only very slightly relieved by bittersweet lyrics:
“All my life, all I’ve know, the raven’s call has always shown, in your wings, in your light, in your dark, all is right.”
The seven-minute title track follows, introduced by strumming that is just as languid as the vocals until an aggressive, rougher chorus comes in:
“Bury me in some ancient ruin, that my life might be waiting for a ride.”
Von Till sings as a Heathen lone cowboy would; the mood is oriented on gloomy country, although lyrics go in the opposite direction and suggest, at least, a form of pantheism that is in full communion with nature and its inhabitants:
“In the unseen same ring, and the heron’s final turn, I lower my head, stricken by the awe of it all.”
“I will leave, but hurt myself on the backside, the backside of the mountain.”
Nature comes up as a primary theme again and again; it is actually the lone, true constant presence alongside the theme of suffering, always regarded as through the eyes of a lover. A Korg MS-20 makes the first of its appearances at the beginning of ‘Night of the Moon’, giving the track an amazingly vintage sound. For a handful of seconds, we are transported into a Carpenter-esque horror atmosphere before Von Till’s rugged voice brings us partially back.
On the concluding track, ‘Known but Not Named’, the Korg is joined by a reverb unit EMT 140; their role bursts open in the droning second half of the song. It’s a painful, reflective piece which delivers beautiful verses, paradoxically full of both hope and hopelessness:
“I saw the freedom in his hand and wanted it for my own / To swim the stream as it was and leave my grief behind me.”
On A Life unto Itself, Von Till delivers his latest work with no intention of jumping the bandwagon that he in part has worked to build; one that has been pieced together purely out of equal parts masculinity and melancholy. It is filled with and textured by reverberating silences and haunting guitar lines, distortion, and apparent peace, lights, and shadows that alternate smoothly without perceivable breaks; all of this while his rasping voice throws its shadow upon the grooves.
A Life unto Itself won’t be remembered as the most dynamic dark folk album ever, nor as a striking exercise in originality; what is here, however, draws its lifeblood directly from purity, honesty, and passion. Honesty is the key word here: Steve Von Till leaves his very self here, barren and naked for all to see, and therefore so does his music flow freely, unhindered. It takes effort and perhaps even a bit of bravery to get willingly lost into such a peculiar record, whose aura is all but light and cheerful. A Life unto Itself is certainly a large step forward compared to his previous work; for this and for his ability to find and create an internally coherent harmony, Von Till deserves much praise.
“When you make a big life decision and then you hear a raven’s call out in the sky, it wasn’t chance—it was an affirmation, it was meant for you, even if that might seem ridiculous in a conventional sense. When you hear a melody and it takes you back a thousand years to a memory you’re not even sure you were a part of. […]When you’re walking through ordinary, mundane situations, you have this frame of reference that takes on great personal significance beyond surviving the day-to-day: it’s surviving the day-to-day with meaning.”
How many musicians, how many men out there could speak this way without sounding laughable? This is Steve Von Till, ladies and gentlemen; take it or leave it, but you’d be a fool to miss the chance to once again sink in his darkness.
01) In Your Wings
02) A Life unto Itself
03) A Language of Blood
04) Night of the Moon
05) Birch Bark Box
06) Chasing Ghosts
07) Known but Not Named