The credits for Earth’s ninth studio record, Full Upon Her Burning Lips, list only two musicians: Dylan Carlson, responsible for “guitar, bass guitar, amplifiers and devices”, and Adrienne Davies, “drums and percussives”. On its own, this sparse lineup isn’t noteworthy. Carlson founded the chameleonic project known as Earth in 1989, and since the early 2000s, Davies has been not only Earth’s drummer, but also an integral figure in shifting the band’s sonic approach from the drone doom of its early days to the Western-influenced instrumental rock that now defines Earth’s sound. But there is something to the fact that this is the first Earth record to claim Carlson and Davies as its sole performers. All of the LPs featuring Carlson and Davies up to this point, beginning with the 2005 live disc Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword and spanning to Earth’s most recent studio affair, 2014’s Primitive and Deadly, have featured other musicians, and guest collaborators like Bill Frisell and Mark Lanegan.
Even more striking, Full Upon Her Burning Lips sports the faces of Carlson and Davies on its cover. No other Earth album has ever featured the actual likenesses of the band. Album art in the Earth discography includes everything from an ominous church to the back of a slick lime-green automobile. Up until now, Earth never seemed like the kind of band to indulge in autobiographical statements, preferring to operate behind the curtain of records with imposing titles like Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Yet the bare-bones lineup of Full Upon Her Burning Lips, combined with the faces of Carlson and Davies on the sleeve art, feels like the closest Earth will ever come to the mid-career self-titled LP. Having already massively reinvented themselves once and refined their new sound throughout several excellent albums, Earth now appears to be offering a clear and direct statement of intent.
If that was Carlson and Davies’ purpose, then they succeeded. Full Upon Her Burning Lips distills Earth’s sonic down to its purest alchemical base. Carlson’s guitar tone is immaculate throughout. There’s a reason that “amplifiers”, which only normally get mentioned in the product endorsement sections of liner notes, receive billing alongside guitars and bass. Anyone with an affinity for Telecaster-type twang and vintage distortion will find Full Upon Her Burning Lips a masterclass in electric guitar technique. Davies, meanwhile, lays out slow beats laden with tension and suspense. Between every hit of the snare and kick of the bass drum, Carlson’s guitars weave spellbinding licks, which without Davies’ gentle and patient drumming would sound like idle noodling.
Much like Thorsten Benning, the drummer for Bohren & der Club of Gore – whose glacially slow instrumental jazz is the noir counterpart to Earth’s psychedelic Western aesthetic – Davies has the difficult task of imbuing low-tempo, often unassuming drum rhythms with the rhythmic weight of a metal drummer playing at full double bass. Davies, of course, exhibits this masterfully on The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull – which for this critic’s money ranks as Earth’s strongest album — but it is special to hear her and Carlson’s interplay without any adornments.
Given how much Earth has developed its 21st-century sound – the one first codified in Hex and explored and expanded in The Bees Made Honey, the two-part Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, and Primitive and Deadly – there isn’t much that’s surprising on Full Upon Her Burning Lips. Carlson’s guitars move between laser-sharp clear tones and dust bowl-evoking distortion. (The album press materials liken this to the Bakersfield Sound. Having grown up in Bakersfield, I can confirm this comparison, although Carlson’s is a distinctly contemporary update.) Davies’s gentle touch on the drums creates the spacious rhythmic environment so crucial to Earth’s music.
The songs hone in on single riffs, which through hypnotic repetition paint vivid canvases of long desert vistas. There’s even a swagger to riffs like those on “Exaltation of Larks” and the midsection of “The Colour of Poison”. (Yes, the majority of these tracks sport wordy titles that look like they were borrowed from long-lost early modern tragedies.) If you’ve kept up with Earth since its reincarnation beginning with Hex, Full Upon Her Burning Lips will prove to be a rewarding and familiar sonic territory. And some career-best moments emerge here, from the stop-start of “The Colour of Poison’s” opening riff, which uses silence like syncopation, and the widescreen scope of the 12-minute “Datura’s Crimson Veils”.
By that same token, however, the record at times feels like a retread, a victory lap which Carlson and Davies have good reason to believe they’ve earned. On its own The Bees Made Honey is a monumental achievement, an album any artist would be lucky to make once. Rightly confident in their sound, Carlson and Davies, per the album biography, “enter[ed] into Full Upon Her Burning Lips without a conceptual arc to guide the process, relying instead on their collective subconscious to hone in on the overarching muse as the songs developed.” Indeed, the album does feel like unimpeded access into the sonic imagination of Carlson and Davies.
But one easily runs the risk of retreading old ground if they draw too heavily from that collective subconscious, or at the very least repeating a single persistent idea within that subconscious without further developing it. That happens more than once during Full Upon Her Burning Lips‘ runtime. “Maiden’s Catafalque” feels like a warm-down, and the intriguingly titled “She Rides an Air of Malevolence” doesn’t contain enough ideas to sustain its 11-and-a-half-minute length. A common riff technique also repeats throughout, in which Carlson strongly plucks a single low open string, after which he the lead part of the riff, sustaining the final note until he once again hits the low string. This approach is classic Earth, and it’s essential to the atmosphere Carlson aims to build. But given what Earth has already achieved with this style – to say nothing of Full Upon Her Burning Lips’ nearly hour-long runtime – these “subconscious” music ideas repeat one too many times, which is saying something considering that few bands handle repetition so well as Earth.
For the seasoned fan, the “stripped down to basics” project often goes one of two ways: either the simplicity of the music will remind one of what they love about the artist in the first place, or it can come across as a case of been-there-done-that. With Full Upon Her Burning Lips, it’s somehow both. Carlson and Davies’ techniques and tones exhibit all the things that have made Earth one of instrumental rock’s sterling acts of the past two decades; yet, at the same time, there’s little here that bests what Earth has already crafted.
For the uninitiated, Full Upon Her Burning Lips is the best primer for this band’s music. Longtime fans may find themselves wanting more innovation from a group, now a duo, who knows how to do a lot with a little. Wherever you find yourself in relation to Earth, one thing is certain: Full Upon Her Burning Lips accurately captures the hazy, dust-swept magic that only Carlson and Davies can conjure.