Verbs are very useful when describing albums. Adjectives tend to slip faster into hyperbole and there’s something about the dynamics of doing that relates to music very well. So, when one turns to an album, it might serve to consider now what the album sounds like but what actions it calls to mind. With Steve Von Till‘s A Life Unto Itself, the semantic field is clear: scraping, digging, distilling, excavating. Reaching into some sort of core that has always been present in von Till’s illustrious career and bringing it to light.
If you seek the lofty caverns and deep-pluming chasms of Neurosis, you won’t find them here. However, there is still some bed rock, some strata of emotion, that links the projects. The overall sensation of hardship, of toil, of striving for something better amidst the ruins of one’s life, is common to both creations. In A Life Unto Itself, it is presented in a bare form: acoustic guitars, lap guitars and von Till’s booming voice are the only heralds of the inner storm, of the pain that leaks through every word.
The comparison to Dorthia Cottrell‘s latest effort is unshakable. However, von Till’s album differs from hers in a key way: the amount of experimentation it undertakes near its end. Where Cottrell very successfully adheres to the folk and country roots of the album, von Till quickly introduces more modern and abrasive sounds. While “In Your Wings” and “A Life Unto Itself” are beautiful, calming and morose creations, the third track “A Language of Blood” introduces synths, strings and rolling drums. It slowly becomes heavier and more ponderous before ending on ominous, throaty backing vocals.
The next track, “Night of the Moon”, takes the transformation one step further, opening with 80’s tinged synths that wouldn’t shame Kayo Dot. Indeed the comparison is to be considered, since the guitar line that comes after it reminds us of Coffins of Io in several ways. The next track, “Birch Bark Box”, perhaps returns a bit to the beginning of the album but not for long. The closing two tracks, “Chasing Ghosts” and “Known But Not Named”, are much slower, almost drone like. They feature distortion laden guitars taking their time to navigate the composition of the track, finally placing us at the closing of the album with static and feedback with folk elements interlaced within them.
A Life Unto Itself organizes itself around a shared outlook rather than musical influences. At its core lies a despondency, a tiredness of suffering and a longing for peace. Along this triumvirate spiral the different touching points of the album. Whether country, folk, drone, electronic or even industrial, the album knows what its doing because its connected to this pulsing reactor of emotion. Above it all, and perhaps criminally absent from the rest of this review, conducts von Till’s voice. It is both majestic and broken, regal and pleading, self secure and lost. He is the conduit through which the message of this album speaks loud and clear, washing over the listener and drawing us in.