By Jim Schutze
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To apply the term "hardcore" in describing the sounds and vibes of Bay Area titans Neurosis is to miss the point. Whether the Scott Kelly-led outfit writhes with more recent ambient tones or pummels with the punk of their late-'80s beginnings, there's a legitimate sense of emotional heaviness that can sometimes be overlooked. Metal in almost any form can pack an emotional wallop.
While the aggressive tones of Neurosis and Kelly's intimidating appearance might lead to preconceived notions about his acoustic project, he's vulnerable just like the rest of us, and that challenge scares him the most.
"When I get into an acoustic mode, every note counts," he says. "It's a different sort of meditation. I have to let my armor go in order to do this and I have to find a new way to protect myself, because you can hear everything I do, every note I play. I don't have the Neurosis wall of sound to protect me. I have to dig down deep to really craft songs in a new way."
For Kelly, now sober from drink and drugs for 10 years, it's important to capture a rush that isn't going to leave him empty after reaching a damaging high.
"I like performing like this, right on the edge where things are a little bit scary," he says. "Instead of being destructive, I can do this to get into that mind-space and feel victory."
Emotional warts aren't all Kelly is apprehensive about exposing. Surprisingly, the artist who has inspired countless musicians with a majestic, dark presence is, admittedly, not that great a student himself.
"I've had to learn chords," he says. "I don't speak music, and I can't read it. But I desire to be able to express myself in that direct and terrifying way."
That is Kelly's present challenge. A few months ago, his father died of leukemia, leaving an understandably massive hole in his son's psyche. Kelly knows that music will help him reconcile his thoughts, he's just not sure when.
"It hasn't really come through yet, though I know it will. The next Neurosis record will have a song [tentatively titled "Casting of the Ages"] that's a real direct reflection of my feelings on losing him. I'm still too close to it, though. I'm still trying to come to terms with him not being there."
Recognizing the complexity of the father-son relationship, Kelly divulges that, at least in this case, art must wait for pain to give way to a perspective with more clarity.
"It's been a few months and it's all beginning to settle in," he admits. "It's getting past the hard memories and getting to the softer ones. I'm getting to the highlights."