Steve Von Till
A Grave Is A Grim Horse
Perhaps the history of the song is innate within us. At least that's what we might glean from Steve Von Till's third Neurot Recordings solo outing A Grave Is A Grim Horse. Intertwined with interpretations of songs by Nick Drake, Townes Van Zant, Mickey Newberry and Lyle Lovett, Von Till's powerful yet subtly graceful originals merge with a lexicon that manifests as something beyond signature, something beyond the concept of persona that popular culture has repeatedly sold us over the past 50 years. Where his previous releases showed reverence for folk music forms of the past, A Grave Is A Grim Horse peers directly inward, drawing from this history of song and earnestly embracing the need we all share to etch our mark upon the artifacts that will ultimately survive us.
Listening to the album, there's a troubling theme that reveals itself only when we're not seeking it. It tells us that we are nothing more than part of the sum of an elusive whole, but sometimes the patterns that define us can be harnessed, as they are here. And, what's most striking about the album is that Von Till's originals are so immediately captivating and threadbare that they seem more familiar upon first listen than the works of the time-honored songwriters to whom he pays tribute. Songs like the title track and "Looking For Dry Land" show Von Till coming into his own as a composer and arranger, perfectly adorning songs with flourishes of swooping strings, pedal steel, organ, et al. There's a somber restraint throughout, allowing the plaintive melodies to elevate each song beneath Von Till's breathy whisper that's reminiscent of similarly raspy, whiskey-throttled voices of Mark Lanegan and Michael Gira.
Steve Von Till is most widely recognized as vocalist and guitarist in Bay Area heavy post-psychedelic punk legends Neurosis. But, the breadth of his talents and interests reaching far beyond that band's thunderous intensity have been well established over the course of related projects like the experimental offshoot Tribes of Neurot, psych-drone band Harvestman and acoustic guitar based solo releases As The Crow Flies (2000) and If I Should Fall To the Field (2002). Von Till's intense obsession with ancestry and many things ancient is deeply ingrained in all his work, but none more than within his solo recordings. His first two albums focused intently upon sounds and stories of ages past, eloquently serving to reconnect with forgotten mythologies and long-buried verse. While the same reverence remains on A Grave Is A Grim Horse, it is also Von Till's most personal and confident effort to date. Having traded city life for a rural existence in the open skies, wilderness and dense forests of Northern Idaho, the songwriter's dedication to these transcendent themes seem all the more focused and equally freed from contemporary trappings.
Ages ago, folk songs traveled through human history like a plague mutating and adapting the characteristics of each carrier and compounding the ghostly weight of the past. Von Till shows a depth and breadth to his songwriting that makes If I Should Fall to the Field flow like the bloodlines that connect us all.
The album opens with the parched weight of the title track, as the singer mournfully strums a bleary twanging guitar line, yearning for a departed elder, singing, "what the dead reveal to the living/ My blanket can't keep out this cold/ A grave is a grim horse to ride." The last line poignantly punctuated by a loud, chiming guitar line drenched in reverb. "Clothes of Sand" is a reinterpretation of a rare Nick Drake song, unreleased in his lifetime, that Von Till makes his own by fitting its claustrophobic candor with a smudged, fatalistic sounding string accompaniment. Elsewhere, "Valley of the Moon" is a deeply impassioned account that seems both a chronicle of the singer's own pilgrimage in anticipation of catastrophes to come as an echo of those who'd previously endured similar hardships. While the song sounds wholly autobiographical, it is inspired by the Jack London book of the same name that eerily parallels Von Till's own exodus from city life. "Looking For Dry Land" is a moving attempt to reconnect to that very humanity that has long since departed. The finality of album closer "Gravity" is incredibly moving. "What's done is done/ What's gone is gone" Von Till sings seemingly simultaneously to bid farewell to a past, a loved one...perhaps even all of us.
It's a resignation, just as the title suggests, echoing that of an old Irish limerick of the grim horse that delivers us to whatever may lie beyond this life. And, at the same time, it's an immense release to realize that we've only played a temporary host to this virus of song. A Grave Is A Grim Horse is a beautiful vessel to that end.
Musical missive number two (or three if you count the sidelong Fear Falls Burning remix from a few years back) from Harvestman, the cosmic folk space raga alter ego of Neurosis' Steve Von Till.
The first Harvestman record, Lashing The Rye, was a dizzying confluence of delicate seventies British-style folk, shimmery spaced out drift, and glacial doomdrone sprawl, a constantly evolving, organic song suite that seemed to exist in some glorious blissed out otherworld. On In A Dark Tongue, the glimmering strands of traditional folk music that tethered the first record become even more tenuous. Even at its spaciest, Harvestman seemed grounded and earthbound, certainly with an eye to the stars, but the sounds evoking frosty mountainsides, deep forests, blackened skies, as much as strange shapes in the heavens and mysterious galaxies, the soundtrack to a strange terrestrial world, lit by the contrails of mysterious bodies streaking across the heavens.
Like Lashing The Rye, In A Dark Tongue is also a weathered megalithic sonic artifact of an unknowable culture, its symbols obscure yet magnetic, calling one into communion with its ancient spirit. Enduring, unnerving, moving. Evoking arcane rites, cold hazy sunrises, a god/dess visible only in the massive wheeling patterns of nature and sound. But … Dark Tongue moves beyond its predecessor, creating a linked, yet wholly other sonic landscape, at once more abstract and ethereal, but also heavier and more dense, with a black hole intensity woven into the otherwise kaleidoscopic drift, the sound constantly shifting from woozy, bleary eyed psychedelia to loosely propulsive spacekraut groove, fluttery delicate thrum to wild metallic squall, all doused in effects, a warm fuzzy patina of gauzy blur and muted buzz.
It's almost as if the songs here are not so much songs as transmissions, broadcast from a lost land, messages from the original Harvestman, sprawling lysergic druidic rituals, wreathed in the sonic detritus of the sound's endless journey, a message home - or a message lost and drifting endlessly through the black expanses of time.
Recorded in his home studio deep in the forests of North Idaho, Harvestman draws from the surrounding landscape, unfurling softly buzzing, spidery barely-there melodies that hover in druggy expanses of Tangerine Dream warped guitar blur, hazy and delicate yet dark, an alien psych folk rendered in shades of space rock.
Soft whispery steel string strum gives way to ultra distorted ur-drone ragas, the guitars super saturated and crumbling, leads that sound more like bagpipes than guitars, the sound warped and blown out, but still warm and tranquil.
Fluttering mellotronic flutes flit dreamily around slow shifting sheets of soft swelling chords, smeared with streaks of glitch and whir. Slowly sprawling grooves underpinned by squalls of outer space FX and upper register feedback, all draped over brittle layers of jagged crunch, throbbing motorik beats wrapped in thick swaths of delay, decay and rumble, everything locked into hypnotic lurching loops.
The vocals are sparse, in fact on … Dark Tongue the vocals creep to the surface on only one track, the brooding expansive "By Wind And Sun". Von Till's raspy croon, equal parts weathered Tom Waitsian bellow and Neurosis-style metallic howl, rough and raw, but still soulful and dramatic, a haunting ritualistic chant, although as the song progresses, Von Till's voice begins to transform and splinter into strange fragmented shapes, the various shards sent spinning into the ether, gradually evolving into another washed out and heavily effected layer of sound, that seems to melt into the swirling and whirling sounds all around it.
There's even one track, “Music of the Dark Torrent”, with what sounds like a Koto, super spare and abstract, channeling Eastern classical music, but layered with slivers of minor key guitar growl, the whole thing eventually erupting into a malfunctioning electronic freakout. The whole record is a constantly shifting sprawl of electric guitars and synthesizers, dulcimers and ring modulators, loops and vocals, delay and distortion. Members of the Grails and Om contribute, but here they play acolytes to Von Till's high priest, together invoking the spirit of German Oak, Amps For Christ, Can, Six Organs Of Admittance, Sunn 0))), Faust, Growing, Amon Duul, their sonic shadows dancing on the looming stones assembled in the flickering firelight, beneath a sky of diamond and obsidian.
In A Dark Tongue is a gorgeous slow burning psychedelic song cycle, smoldering minor key epics, the sounds lustrous and organic, the guitars viscous and virulent, the atmosphere murky and mysterious, all the while strangely sun dappled and dreamlike. Strings soar and sing, melodic fragments are hurled spinning into the abyss, monolithic guitar drones flow into fields of ephemeral stasis, a sound not heavy so much as darkly effulgent.
The two longest tracks appear to be the space rock centerpieces, channeling the extended heart-of-the-sun outros of Hawkwind and the smoked out stomp of old Monster Magnet into classic krautrock heaviness, each a mesmerizing soundtrack to some seemingly and perhaps ultimately doomed mission into the unknown, both rife with relentless rhythms, roiling psych drone tumult and thick warble-y synths, underpinning moody meandering melodies and frictive soft focus textures.
While Harvestman most definitely exists within an esteemed sonic brotherhood, the sound transcends. Von Till proves to be a master of more than massive pummeling heaviness, displaying a flair for the delicate, the tenebrous, the contemplative and the hallucinatory, having created with In A Dark Tongue a sound both portentous and elegiac, an arcane and esoteric bit of beauty, of dark hued mystery, of folk flecked abstraction and churning leviathan heft. A breathtaking and expansive glimpse beyond the firmament, into the soul of a sound, where the already blurred lines between drone and doom and drift and psych and kraut and space cease to exist at all.