The instrument that will come to define this release is not Carlson's guitar so much as Lori Goldston's cello.
Dylan Carlson hasn't come to the point of dismissing the work he did as Earth in the '90s, but it's obvious that he's abandoned it. Earth fans still waiting for Carlson to kick on the distortion pedal are destined to remain disappointed; vaguely western psychedelic atmospherics are where his heart now lies, and he has no intention of going back to the doom 'n drone that defined Earth's early days and spawned veritable tribute bands like Sunn O))). Perhaps what appeals to his ear has simply grown softer with age; perhaps he doesn't want to conjure memories of a descent into addiction. Whatever the case may be, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 (presumably the first of a pair, or perhaps even a series of releases) is the quietest thing he has yet released.
To be sure, the instrument that will come to define this release is not Carlson's guitar so much as Lori Goldston's cello.
It is Goldston's cello playing that keeps Angels of Darkness from being the "lightest" of Earth's releases since the rebirth that was Hex. You don't hear it right away as opener "Old Black" begins -- you hear Carlson's guitar, of course, and one of Adrienne Davies' all but trademarked slow 'n steady beats, but the cello takes its time, worming its way into your ear. Even as the guitars, bass, and drums methodically repeat a chord progression in a way that sounds like a re-appropriated take on Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", that cello slides over, under, and through the mix. It's a camouflaged but foreign element that adds a mournful tone to the other instruments' slow and confident swagger, a color that fills out the sound in ways that Earth's previous album The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull never attempted.
The cello is made even more prominent in the track that follows, a huge, 12-minute behemoth called "Father Midnight". For the first half of the track, the guitar, bass, and drums follow the same 40-second-or-so loop of music to the note, while Goldston is apparently given improvisational free reign to do as she pleases. Eventually Carlson follows Goldston into soloing over the continued repetition of the bass and drums, but it's Goldston that steals the show anyway with a sound that twists and turns while never challenging the mood of her backdrop.
This sort of dynamic continues right up until the beginning of the title track, which rounds out the album. Oddly, the first few minutes here are occupied by Goldston and bassist Karl Blau, the two newcomers, who put together a sound not unlike a Tool instrumental interlude. Eventually, it grows into something like the tracks that fill out the rest of the album, but it does this so slowly that you hardly even notice it happening. Davies' beats get a little heavier, Carlson's guitar twisting and turning around the rhythmic base, moving from harmony to atonality with aplomb.
Taken as an album, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 is a technical feat. It's difficult to keep this style of music from turning into atonal slop, but Carlson and his crew offer just the right amount of restraint to make it work. There is an intensely lucid, methodical feel to the whole thing, even in the rare occasions that the players dive into solos or fills, that allows the listener to concentrate on the moods being presented.
Still, there's a danger here as well; in nailing his band's persona to spaghetti-western psychedelics so indelibly as he does here (and apparently for at least one more album if the title is anything to go by), Carlson risks a career falling into rote repetition. The cello saves him from such a fate for this album, and maybe the Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light cycle will eventually inspire him to new heights; for now, though, he's produced an album that takes his current style just about as far as it can go. At the very least, those who have followed him this far should be satisfied.