The Sick Earth
Primitive and Deadly, Earth‘s latest, left me in a state of doubt. For years I thought they’d had been making all the right strides. With each new album Dylan Carlson and his dead-eyed band of outlaws had constructed sonic landscapes that didn’t merely evoke the environments they seem modeled after—the West of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in Hex, the deserts of the ancient Middle East with The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, the frigid air of a mountain top and the cosmic vistas of space with both volumes of Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light—but in fact embodied them. Even sober it was easy enough to close your eyes and find yourself wandering the desert, parched and starving and desperate or stranded at the zenith of the world with the only light, the only notable landmark, the distant and menacing light of stars. No music has ever, I felt, evoked desolation or emptiness in quite the same way.
By contrast, Primitive and Deadly was dull. Uninspired vocals ruined Carlson’s normally flawless scene-setting; uninspired arrangements that hearkened back in no small way to older Earth tracks, such as “Ouroboros Is Broken” made many tracks feel superfluous. Some of Earth’s earlier catalog had been ponderous, some of Earth’s worst efforts had been ugly, yes, but not a single track off of earlier efforts had ever felt as much like filler as “Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon”. No Earth song before “There Is a Serpent Coming” might have been described as hokey. Far from moving forward and charting new territory—because where else does one go from the firmament but to realms unimagined?—Earth seemed to have reverted but not to any primitive state. They were cast from the heights of Mt. Sinai to the deserts of Israel and they had nothing to show for it except a brief brush with the infernal as manifested in“Even Hell Has Its Heroes”, a track as diabolical as its names suggested. With dueling guitars, a scorching rhythm section and a tone of no small omen it was a hint that Earth might have found a new direction even if it took them an album to do so. They’d visited Heaven and found a dead-end there while their initial brush with hell proved all-too exciting.
Only the detour they’ve recently taken with the Bug (aka legendary British producer Kevin Martin) might prove more promising still. For once, Carlson seems to have found a collaborator who understands his most nihilistic, brutal tendencies, an ear who could hear Earth’s desperate, lonely keening. There’s always been a questing character in the band, as if Carlson was dragging his friends across the world’s most forsaken landscapes in search of something he knew from the start would not be wherever they arrived. What he found instead was always some variation of the same, which explains why Earth’s general timbre has always equal parts windswept and dusty, sun-baked and cracked. Arid, desolate (tundras, after all, have more than a little in common with deserts). Ironically, though, the band never seemed to journey into urban centers. Even its grungiest efforts, as with Pentastar, were far removed from urban roots, coming instead from some doped out interior space.
The Bug hasn’t forgotten how ugly the city can be, though, and he’s done a great job of teaching this to Earth, of showing it just how likely it is that an urban hell will crush you by its sheer indifference, how the smog will poison you and how the hot, unforgiving concrete is so damned inhospitable even weeds, at home anywhere, seem to struggle to find purchase in this ground. Carson and company, for their part, have learned and learned well.
Boa/Cold, named without any kind of pretense after the two-sides of this limited release, is the result of their collaboration, and the result is nothing less than an evolution of Earth’s natural style. The same steel-guitar drones and deliberate pace are still there, the band’s love for fading and slowly layering as pronounced as ever, but now there’s a distinct sound of something industrial underriding all of this. There are additional effects, here, the kind you’d never imagine might show up in an Earth album—distant, fragile chimes and slight tinks from a synthesizer—but the real innovation is in the various flavors of industrial percussion the Bug introduces into all of it.
Those throbbing drum machines, those smoggy snares, the slow building bits of gnarly, twisted grinds that can only come from various sound-effects: it’s all here and it’s all ugly and it’s all so perfect because of this. Synthesizers drone high above, like helicopters—unmanned—hover above, watching. Bells ting in the distance and the sound is not unlike a funeral chime; by the time these bells have moved up to the forefront, as in “Boa,” they are unmistakable. Not merely “like” funeral chimes, they ARE funeral chimes, tolling for whomever should hear them. Those additional percussive effects which might have seemed unthinkable—Earth has always been a very, well, earthy band, with a very natural sound; the noise from a digital stream seems almost anathema to the world’s they’ve explored—here seem necessary. They lend an urgency and an oppressive weight to these songs, replacing the literal loneliness of the hermit in the desert with the more abstract loneliness of someone alone in an urban center, surrounded on all sides by people but noticed only by an oppressive Authority.
It’s not pretty music anymore, no. If Earth continues down the path that the Bug has shown it with this EP, they’re sure to lose the semi-divine element of its sound, that natural essence that smacked of nature’s cruelest and its loveliest. But what Earth has gained might be far more exciting than the wicked hell-fire flare it demonstrated in rare spots on Primitive and Deadly, may chart a sludgier and more promising future for the band that long ago cast off the muck of their earliest efforts for austere, severe and scathingly dry music. I wouldn’t advise Earth to shoo the Bug away and slam the window on him just yet: he’s clearly carrying a potent strain of some viral agent, one that will make the band that much stronger. Assuming, of course, that it doesn’t kill them first.