As front man of Neurosis, Steve Von Till has been responsible for some of the heaviest, darkest and conversely, most uplifting music in recent years. A Life Unto Itself is Von Till’s fourth solo album (unless you include his work as Harvestman too) and finds him in fine, if introspective form. Unlike the somewhat brutal approach of Neurosis, A Life Unto Itself gives itself over fully to Von Till’s folk and Americana influences and is a distinctly more low key affair.
In fact, part of Von Till’s power as a solo artist is how he allows his songs space to breathe and develop. Although he is joined on this album by J Kardong on pedal steel, Pat Schowe (percussion) and Eyvind Kang (viola) they are all used sparingly, allowing the collective’s sound to slowly unwind and fill the gaps like tendrils of smoke. A Language Of Blood for example is a real slow burner, with Von Till’s low utterances initially underpinned by a barely there acoustic guitar, and occasional interjections from a shimmering electric guitar (that sounds not unlike that of Dylan Carlson’s current sound for Earth). Initially, the guitars echo and chime and Von Till sounds lost in the wilderness, but as the song progresses the instruments find their places, swelling and expanding their tones to fill the void until what was a desolate and daunting song suddenly feels alive as Von Till begins to put his thoughts in order under the stars.
Von Till’s reasoning behind the album is one entrenched in folklore, myth and history. He speaks of music possessing the ability to trigger memories from over a thousand years ago, and of meaning in the calls of animals. Channeling mystical ideas like these can be a tricky affair and in less capable hands such notions would appear to be ridiculous, and yet there’s a simplistic and apparently organic truth to Von Till’s musical vision that gives these songs a real gravitas. Part of this is down to his vocals, which possess a rich and grainy timbre. His delivery is never forceful, with these songs being narrated with the same languid passion that can be found in Mark Lanegan’s best work, or in Tom Waits’ drawled poetry.
Birch Black Box is a prime example of Von Till’s ability to wring emotion from every note and utterance. Looking to the stars for answers whilst also looking for truths within his own psyche, his voice nearly cracks from the emotion as he delivers each line, and attempts to find his place in the cosmos and the natural world. It’s a sparsely arranged song, but it packs a heavy punch. These themes, both musically and lyrically are revisited throughout the album, but so exquisitely honed is Von Till’s delivery that each scant soundscape offers enough intrigue to warrant further investigation and contemplation.
Only Night Of The Moon experiments with a different approach and the acoustic guitars are momentarily substituted for synthesisers and thundering electric guitar interjections. It is here that Von Till explores space by using psychedelic sounds and a cosmically tinted musical form. It’s a brief, but enchanting visit to the stars as the rest of the album returns to terra firma, contemplating the heavens from an apparently more tangible platform. Regardless of where Von Till makes his observations from, this album is packed with an apparently endless stream of emotional realisations and truths. Had it already not been titled A Life Unto Itself, Ad Astra Per Aspera would have been just perfect.