Earth: “Father Midnight”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/20110113_specialmusic_earth.mp3|titles=Earth: “Father Midnight”]
Dylan Carlson‘s best work as Earth often creates a crushing sense of inevitability. Between the long-form guitar griddlings of Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version in 1993 and the panoramic beauty of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull in 2008, Earth has erratically transitioned from smothering to sparkling.
One thing that remains, though, is how Carlson and his assorted bandmates move through their instrumentals: with slow but ever-emphatic steps. Since Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method in 2005, people have often said that Earth is creating something more like “Americana” than its earlier doom metal. That isn’t wrong at all, but more fundamentally, Earth’s recent music revels in the basics of melody. It often uses blues-like scales — though rarely as grindingly dissonant as those on Earth 2 — but always explores them with an almost mad patience. It has the frank sureness of a force that knows it will catch up with you eventually.
The new Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light, Vol. 1, might be roughly part of the Hex phase, and might sound just as good as Bees, but with the addition of cello and greater willingness to vary Earth’s format from song to song.
Carlson has said that he likes to find his melodies “within the drone.” It’s clear on the new Angels that he’s as ready as he’s ever been to let his collaborators seek alongside him within the expanses of sound they create. Where Bees relied largely on layers of guitar from Carlson, and, on three tracks, Bill Frisell, Angels finds bassist Karl Blau and cellist Lori Goldston — both new members — pushing right alongside him, and sometimes ahead of him, rather than simply thickening up the core melodies.
The other players on Bees never seemed to loosen up quite as much as Blau and Goldston do here, except maybe the piano on “Hung From The Moon.” Throughout the album, Blau’s bass fills and Goldston’s dynamically varied melodic complement fill more of the space between Carlson’s orbit through sparing guitar phrases. The new lineup makes the music slightly busier, but never breaks the pace. Earth’s new group dynamic gets its best showing on “Father Midnight,” on which Carlson, Blau, and Goldston set the rhythm by pinching themselves down to a collective mid-range hum, then releasing themselves into lower registers.
Of course, a cello is a no-brainer fit for Earth’s sound, dominated by a guitarist who likes to let each note ring out nice and long, and Goldston ends up supplying just as much variety as the guitar. On “Hell’s Winter,” the cello gently arcs up in between those guitar notes, almost as if setting a path for Carlson to follow. Goldston carefully alternates between handsome, long-held notes and rougher, squeaking sounds, like the ones that violin / viola player Warren Ellis often pours into Dirty Three records.
The crushing inevitability is still there, in the iron-fisted discipline of drummer Adrienne Davies. She mostly uses just kick, snare, and cymbal, with a perfect timing that makes you feel the vast pockets of open space within the songs, especially album opener “Old Black.” When she throws in stuff that the liner notes call “sea hooves” and “Satan’s knuckles,” the effect isn’t to add to the low end of the kit, but to suggest a shaker played in slow-motion. (It is hard avoid using the word “slow” a lot with Earth, and this is the kind of slow music that demands real concentration from its players.) You might not expect much rhythmic variety from a band that insists on such low tempos, but “Descent To The Zenith” shows how it can be stirringly graceful. The rhythm sways like a leaf drifting toward the ground. It brings even more hallucinatory, inspiring calm to this album than “Miami Morning Coming Down II: Shine” did to Bees.
It’s the title track that challenges and pries apart the Earth sound the most, though. Bass and cello dominate it for the first minute and a half or so, and even after that, Carlson’s guitar comes in only gradually, a couple notes at a time. The song is a reasonable, 20-minute-long argument that the line between harmony and disharmony isn’t so thin. Carlson’s guitar melodies come to hold down the overall structure as always, yet they’re launching off of the singeing, grumbling low end.
As much as Bees, Angels invites the listener to savor and re-discover the pleasures of un-flinching, healthy, sustained notes, it compels you not to tap your foot along, but to slow your breathing to its pace and get engulfed. Angels may even be the better of the two, and you can take it from someone who put Bees at the top of his 2008 best-of list. Earth’s approach varies quite a lot here, yet it’s in no rush for the sake of change. Earth’s Special All-Frequency Version is opening up before us, in a slow process that’s anything but monotonous.