Dylan Carlson, founder of influential drone outfit Earth, is an artist who knows all about innovation. Earth’s droning metallic ’93 opus Earth 2 was responsible for the creation of an entire genre of exceptionally heavy minimalism, and its legacy looms large in the works of such bands as Sunn O))), Nadja, Jesu, Barn Owl and Boris, along with a raft of other down-tempo post-metal and dark ambient artists. It would be impossible to overemphasize Carlson’s pivotal role in establishing the essential elements in the world of reverb-soaked, downtuned doom-laden drone.
Carlson was lost in the drug abuse wilderness for some years, but returned in 2005 with Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method and instantly re-established his reputation. The album dispensed with overtly metallic components, instead utilizing vistas of godforsaken prairies and rough-hued Americana. It’s since had a significant influence on the post-rock scene. Earth then went on to craft even more influential albums of instrumental, experimental droning rock. Long gone are the huge dyspeptic feedbacking soundscapes, and although the music has always remained emotional, atmospheric and entrancing, 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull and 2011’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I saw Carlson searching for more scorched and fragmentary landmarks.
Angels I marked a turning point for Earth. The loss of keyboardist Steve Moore, the addition of cellist Lori Goldston, and a noticeably bluesy avant-folk tenor, found Carlson, drummer Adrienne Davis and bassist Karl Blaus producing some of Earth’s most unrestrained and open-ended work yet. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II contains five improvised tracks that were recorded during the previous album’s original sessions. It serves as a more experimental piece, further exploring the cinematic themes of Angels I‘s brooding, 20-minute, eponymously titled track.
The new album places as much emphasis on the journey as on the destination, and the band ambles through a series of billowing tracks with a lugubrious pace. There’s plenty of low-pitched dusty drone throughout, and intriguing musical interplay between all involved. Combine that with Carlson’s experimentations, off-centre intonations, and an almost otherworldly vision, and the album is more than sufficiently infused with an esoteric mood.
Opening track, “Sigil of Brass”, is a scant three and a half minutes of washed-out pastoral minimalism, with Carlson and Goldston scratching at an ethereal tune that leaves you grasping at tendrils. It’s a beautiful start, offering whispered hints of what’s to come. The nine-minute “His Teeth Old Brightly Shine” follows, with a similar thread of fragility. While it is fleshed out by Blaus’ bass and indistinct percussion, Carlson’s twanging notes and detuned strums sound magnificently unhinged, as if you’ve inadvertently stumbled into a backwoods hamlet filled with countrified unease.
Goldston’s cello work is featured prominently throughout Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II. It adds a counterpoint to Carlson’s ranging riffs, and enriches the mournfulness as only the desolate wail of a cello can. “Waltz (A Multiplicity of Doors)”, the first track to feature Davies’ judicious percussion — which arrives with a keen and welcome thump — is driven hard by Goldston’s cello. She works her string enchantments, drawing every ounce of emotionality from her instrument. With the rest of the band pushing the sorrowful dirge forward, and Carlson adding in notes where fit, it is a magnificent example of the potency that comes from the band instinctively finding the heart of the song.
It’s somewhat awe-inspiring to hear such songs crafted spontaneously. While Carlson clearly had a guiding hand in directing the tunes, there’s a strong sense of equality at play — Davies’ restrained drumming and Blau’s stout bass are just as important for directing the mood as Carlson’s cosmically channeled guitar and Goldston’s artistry. The songs themselves, while loose and unfurling, are just as powerful as those found on Angels I, and there’s a sense of dramatic tension to be found on the lysergic-flecked folk of “The Corascene Dog”. Album closer, “The Rakehell”, which hews closer to striped-back bayou blues than folk, is also captivating, although for entirely different reasons. It offers a glimpse of a new direction for Earth, underscored as it is by a sultry swagger, of all things. It’s surprising, but damn if it isn’t absolutely perfect.
The notion of improvisation can cause some folk’s knees to quiver, but Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II represents everything that is ingenious about a group of musicians gathering the threads of a song to weave a striking sonic tapestry. For over two decades now Earth has been experimenting with tone, texture, nuance and often-threadbare arrangements. Even at its densest the band always balanced virtuosity with minimalism, piecing together nebulous songs in which the space between notes was just as important as the notes themselves.
The unrehearsed and unconstrained nature of the album proves that even at its most spontaneous, Earth has the power to astound and inspire. This is an accomplished and valiant album, a more-than-worthy heir to its sensational predecessor.