Available on: Southern Lord LP
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a new Earth album. Their music sounds like it’s been around for centuries, and their main man Dylan Carlson is such a living legend of underground guitar music that he might as well have been too. Earth are known for, among other things, pretty much inventing post-metal before it had a name, along with the likes of Neurosis, Swans and Fushitsusha, two decades ago. Their slowing to a crawl the already methodical riffing of Black Sabbath was so inspirational to Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson that they named their band after Carlson’s choice of amp: sunn. More tabloidy, Carlson is also known as a friend of Kurt Cobain (who guested on recently reissued A Bureaucratic Desire For Extra-Capsular Extraction), and that owned the gun Cobain used on that fateful day. Carlson also had his fair share of demons, removing himself from music for a number of years, before returning in 2005 with Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method, a quite stunning record that remains one of the rock highlights of last decade.
That album was masterful in the way it reinvented Earth, transforming them from the sludge-beasts they made their name as, into a far cleaner, yet somehow more brutal, outfit. Gone was the meandering and the distortion, their sense of stately pace and repetition finding a new home in crystal clear, near-skeletal arrangements. A no nonsense album in the way it compromised for nobody, it remains one of the finest albums ever released on Southern Lord, and will always stand apart from Earth’s pretenders in its rejection of post-metal/dronedoom cliche.
After Hex blew the doors off the sound of old Earth, and doom as a whole (Earth post-2005 is far removed from what most would call ‘metal’), the listener knows what to expect from a new record: it will bear the hallmarks of the new sound, but will always progress the sound a bit further. And so it is with Angels of Darkness. Carlson told me that the themes for this album reflected his listening while he was making it; on a diet of 1970s folk and psyche rock such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention, Carlson and the band investigated more of a classic rock sound, bringing a more obviously melodic attitude to the music. Where a few short years ago they were daring you to flinch with their spare exercises in harmonics and minimal arrangements, the guitar lines here are more hummable.
This is not to say they have turned into a set of folkies overnight, or that we should expect them to turn up on a Driving Hits compilation championed by Jeremy Clarkson. While the band is journeying closer to all-out tunes, perhaps softening in their ongoing seniority, there is still an absolute stoicism to the music. Part of the reason why Earth have been both so awesome and so unlike almost anyone else recently is the fact that their music is the aural equivalent of No Country for Old Men: the pace is slow and un-flashy, but you can’t turn your attention away because what is gradually unfolding before you is so compelling. These are people who have seen a lot in their time, and it’s written all over the music they play.
I used to describe the Earth sound as being like the mountains: eternal, immovable, epic and beautiful in a strangely brutal way. And it still is, albeit with hints of colour. Carlson won’t pummel you with the same riff, circling over and over until you’re mesmerised. Well, not as much. There are subtle shifts in the melodic themes beyond the usual quiet-loud or crunching of gears. With a deft shift, the guitar will steer a track, sometimes mid-line, in a new direction, incrementally but clearly changing the tone of a song. Carlson’s not going to be a flashy axe hero any time soon, but his playing makes it incredibly easy to appreciate how much of a master of subtle arrangement he is, even if you only notice the aesthetic impact rather than the musical shift.
A lot of the colour on Earth’s last album, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull came from guest organist Steve Moore, who added texture as well as melody to arrangements, both on record and live. Well, he’s moved to pastures new, but has ably been replaced both by more melodic guitar and by cellist Lori Goldston, who has worked with David Byrne and, perhaps more relevant, Nirvana in their last year or so. Goldston’s playing complements perfectly the slow, tight playing of the band and also adds to the Old America, almost country, aesthetic.
Carlson mentioned to me that the album was concerned with what he termed ‘the fair folk’, in keeping with the 70s folk rock themes of old English folklore and fantasy. That comes through in the visual elements of the record, and in the airy atmosphere of the 20-minute finale title track, but not so much in the decidedly earthbound (no pun intended) arrangements elsewhere on the album. One wonders if these themes will be expounded upon when next year’s sequel is released. Either way, it’ll be something to look forward to, as is the imminent UK tour that occurs next month: Earth’s incredibly tight playing is one thing on record, but experienced live is something else entirely. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I represents a fine set of songs that can and will sit proudly alongside the rest of this band’s oeuvre.