Von Till, Steve
A Life Unto Itself

Steve Von Till, a key member of seminal sludge and “post-metal” legends Neurosis, has pursued a fruitful solo career in recent years and released a handful of stark blues and country influenced albums. Blues and country influence, in this context, certainly doesn’t refer to wang dang doodle or how he stopped loving her today. The seven songs comprising A Life unto Itself are haunted landscapes in miniature threaded together by tenuous melodies and lightly stylized with gossamer post-production touches.

The album opens with a moment of pure musical poetry. A three-piece format performs “In Your Wings” featuring guitar, pedal steel, and viola and a minimalist arrangement perfectly complementing Von Till’s vocal, but this complex account of someone struggling with their own nature and the price of pursuing one’s own path is an astonishing marriage of sound and language. Von Till opts for the same configuration on the title track and carries some of its same spirit, but there’s no sense of repetition. The pedal steel is more prominent than before, the choruses larger, and the lyrical content embraces nature as a metaphor even more than the opener. The title track, in key ways, is the album’s most hopeful song in an unexpected way. Once again, Von Till’s narrator lives in an emotional hinterland, alienated and battered, but takes stock of the associated costs that come with preserving the inviolable spirit within us all and judges it worth the scars.

“A Language of Blood” expands the sound appreciably with the addition of hurdy gurdy and light percussion. The viola and guitars continue anchoring the music but these subtle modulations in musical color are another clue revealing A Life unto Itself to be a studied and clearly envisioned musical work. Like the best songwriters, Von Till orders this album into a coherent, non-linear narrative instead of offering up a grab bag of assorted songs. The ominous heartbeat from producer Randall Dunn’s Korg MS-20 keyboard and light synth shading spin “Night of the Moon” in a different direction than earlier efforts. The lyrics are translated from German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff’s poem “Mondnacht” and, without having the original available for comparison, it’s clear that the translator focused on accurately rendering Eichendorff’s imagery in a comprehensible and accessible way.

“Birch Bark Box” turns on the imagery of its title, but the listener’s journey to that conclusion is, at least in part, a quiet meditation on the need for putting the past behind us. One of this album’s basic strengths is that the songwriting isn’t facile and never flinches from grappling with complex themes. This is music far removed from the clenched-fist, storm the ramparts furies of youth, but no less vital because it reflects a sensibility fully engaged with life. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the “sick” Von Till talks about shaking in the album’s penultimate song, “Chasing Ghosts”, is another nod to the sickness of ego and pride that sends us down countless blind alleys. The elegiac and deceptively simple piano playing gives the song a dramatic musical thread tying everything together and keyboards once again provide vivid, brief swells of color.

The album’s final song, “Known But Not Named”, is an uneasy redemption. It comes for those willing to accept it, but it isn’t Sunday School redemption or some Hollywood turnaround. Instead, it has a hard-won recognition that no one regains what they lose and the blackly comic fact of most lives is that we know the way out of our sorrow, but seldom heed our better selves until we’re bleeding on the floor. A Life unto Itself traffics hard in the weathered, withering honesty that one expects from Von Till, but it drives deeper than his earlier solo efforts.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jason Hillenburg
August 17th, 2015

Comments

  1. Commented by: Jay

    Jason my man! Welcome to the fold and a doozy of a first review. I enjoy very much the members of Neurosis’ outside projects… Steve’s solo work is great and what I’ve heard of this is fantastic. Also worth checking out are Blood and Time as well as some of the Harvestman stuff.


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