by Kurt Gottschalk
Dylan Carson has fronted his band Earth (if with a good number of membership changes) for a remarkable 22 years, and in the process has outlined something of a continuum of heavy rock. Although the band came out of the Seattle grunge explosion, their doomy, downtempo riffs stem from a moment predating grunge, predating punk and predating the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Carson reached further back, lifting Black Sabbath's original name and borrowing from that band's early metal inventions. But the glacial power Carson has crafted over the course of a dozen albums is hardly a throwback. His revelation wasn’t just in tempo, it was in taking the posture of hard rock and freeing it from the constrained expectations of heavy metal. And as such, Earth has been the impetus for the most exciting new movement in rock since Carson was hanging with Kurt Cobain.
And something like the way popes, kings and bluesmen names themselves in a lineage, the tectonic shifts that resulted in the explosion of creativity in black metal over the last decade can be traced by names. Starting with the nod to Sabbath in its name, Earth has spawned a lineage of namesakes. The band released the live album Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars, containing a single half-hour track, in 1995. (The 2001 reissue included a bonus track with vocals by Cobain.) The album was titled in tribute to the band's favorite brand of amplifier, and it was that album which in turn gave Sunn O))), the kings of the New Wave of Downtempo Heavy Metal, its name. (Like the amp, the band name is pronounced “sun,” the “O)))” representing the sun on the amplifier logo.) And in 2001, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson (of Sunn O))) and Southern Lord records) formed a band with Lee Dorian (Cathedral, Napalm Death) and Justin Greaves (Electric Wizard) called “Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine,” taking its name from a track on Earth's second record. So Earth's cred papers are clearly in order. But while the NWODHM has blossomed, Earth has turned slowly toward the dawn. After a break from recording, during which Carson worked past drug addiction, the band came back with a new and almost sunny, well, overcast anyway, sound.
The 2008 Southern Lord release The Bee Made Honey in the Lion's Skull featured the band's boldest and most unusual lineup yet. The new quartet featured Adrienne Davies on drums, Steve Moore on grand and electric pianos and Hammond organ and Don McGreevy on electric and upright bass, and even featured jazz and Americana guitarist Bill Frisell on three tracks. It may have been the furthest Carson had ever strayed from the metal roots, but it was still epic Earth: long instrumental tracks built from ploddingly slow riffs and improvised asides.
There wasn't a new release until this year's Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1. (The 2010 issue A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction was a compilation of early recordings.) Angels/Demons brings Earth closer to the rock core, but by no means is it a reversal of the band's slow orbit. Davies (who has been with the band since the 2005's Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method, including a short stretch where she and Carson played as a duo) is the only member retained. The textural space filled by keyboards on Bee/Lion is now occupied by Lori Goldston's cello. The varying instrumentation has resulted in two of the richest records in the Earth discography, but it never seems as if the band is struggling to do something new. Reviews have tossed around labels like “jazzy” and “country,” and Carson has said the same in interviews, but it's not like the band is trying on genres for size.
Angels/Demons is a heavier record than Bee/Lion, but at the same time it's more open, even including a 20-minute wholly improvised track. The band's improvising side was on fine display when they played le Poisson Rouge in New York in June. The lineup had changed again slightly for the touring band, and with Angelina Baldoz replacing Karl Blau on electric bass Carson became the only male in his group. It is, perhaps, a demographic that shouldn't matter, or that shows another aspect of metal's changing face, or just serves to remind that when it all is up, you've got to go back to Mother Earth.
About half the slowly majestic, 90-minute set was made up of songs from the new album and included the title track from Bees/Lion. But the setlist wasn't reserved to new material: They reached back to “Ouroboros is Broken,” the first song Carson wrote for the band (and being performed, he said, for the last time) and a cover of a song by the circa 1960s British folksinger Anne Briggs. Live they were something to behold. Davies' solid, slow-motion drumming seemed like a video effect, and the intermingling of cello and guitar was resonant.
If there is something countryish, as Carson and his legion of bloggers claim, about the new Earth, it's through a filter of Neil Young, or maybe the Dirty Three. But they have something else. They are an exercise in restraint, which might just be the buzzword for the NWODHM or even, if so grand a claim might be made, for innovative music in the early 21st Century. Back in the 20th, jazz, improv, rock, they were rarely about restraint. Anton Webern’s lessons went largely unlearned. But nowadays withholding abandon is where it’s at. They weren’t without forebears; AMM, the Necks, hell, Satie as well. Then Polwechsel, Dawn of Midi, Om, Memorize the Sky and legions of others. But Earth, Earth is rock and roll. This isn’t conceptual or ironic or even strategic. It's real, dirty, rock and roll. Slow and druggy wins the race.