In recent years, a new subgenre of heavy metal has inexplicably gained itself a foothold in the underground: drone metal. It is so agonizingly slow and heavy it resembles something that has dug itself up, rotting and all, from the very confines of a musty grave, making its nearest relative, doom metal, sound like sunny bubblegum pop by comparison. Some of the scene’s poster boys (if poster boys can be an appropriate term for such obscure, black-hearted noise), the guitar-and-bass duo Sunn O))), play with the alleged grand goal of creating a pitch so bottomlessly dense and sustaining it that it achieves the emptying of listeners’ bowels. For the other central band to this growing movement, Earth, the aim is a rather less perturbing one: to paint life and nature’s landscapes with their palette, as on The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull.
Their instrumental sixth album is a continuing sign of their steady advancement. In their first disc of new material since 2005’s Hex (Or Printing in the Infernal Method), they pick up where last year’s collection of re-recorded tracks Hibernaculum left off. Piano in particular is the band’s new fascination, contributing as importantly to the complete sound as the washing reverb of guitars or the laborious percussion of Adrienne Davis, so slow it sounds like it’s dragging itself through space. It rattles and shakes in tremors, gradually creeping up on you, piling up thicker and thicker. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull recounts a tale in seven parts, using cryptic titles and opuses sans words, making it slightly more accessible than Earth’s early work but no less innovative. The tracks have an ancient, organic feel to them. They sound like rock music made during a prehistoric time, along with the gorgeous cover art.
Frontman Dylan Carlson’s biting, nihilistic guitar tone eats away at “Omens and Portents I: The Driver” and hangs there for nine lumbering minutes, along with guesting jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. The fuzzy distortions are like acid, dripping patiently, constantly, from a great height, its insistent syncopated figure recurring till the end. And then it fades without warning, the way the sun peels into blackness at the end of every day… into “Rise to Glory”. Despite its title, it is as inebriated and druggy as its predecessor, letting its augmented chord ring like a dissonant bell across its barren desert. Davis’ drums keep an expertly precise 4/4 stomp with the clinking piano, even as everything surrounding that plodding, immovable anchor caves and collapses into a polyrhythmic, mountainous splurge, gasping for breath.
The piano plays a key role in “Miami Morning Coming Down”. You can imagine it illuminating rays of sun upon a Miami beach through a patch of stormy grey clouds. Its warm, dulcet qualities render everything in a state of lilting serenity. It’s momentary solitude captured after the meltdown of the previous number, but also shrouded sadness, especially once it binds with a guitar, which finally gets to play something other than interminably long, echoing chords. It’s the former instrument, however, that begins to take a hold, from the bluesy motif in “Engine of Ruin”, to the bass notes ominously setting the stage to the swaying percussive rumble of “Omens and Portents II: Carrion Crow”; or the wistful “Hung from the Moon”, a candlelit, piano-led serenade in deep space.
Once again, though, it’s Earth that set us gently back on, um, earth. Nothing could have prepared us for the understated beauty of the title track, drawing our journey to a sombre, ceremonial closure. A flickering joint piano-guitar-bass passage wriggles its way into your inner conscious, only to be burned out as a soulful guitar break splices its midsection. As has become the norm for records under the drone metal umbrella, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull won’t sting you with any immediacy. It hypnotizes you with its laid-back, thousand-years-in-the-fabricating trance. A small miracle of recording, the album’s composition is remarkably low-key, as is the ensemble responsible for it. Yet the instruments used are played and applied with such glorious skill and understanding that it takes a few tread-ins to allow its gigantism to sink in. Not only is the result downright excellent, proving that Earth have grown beyond their origins while still recognizably belonging to them, it is one that challenges their listeners to broaden and grow with them.