Earthen Sea's 'Grass and Trees' Has an Oblong, Building-Block Quality
Earthen Sea's lavishly detailed new album, Grass and Trees, sounds like a classic dub-techno album but somehow doesn't feel like one.
Grass and Trees
17 May 2019
Dub techno is an interesting genre because, while built on the limitless possibilities of dub and still relatively young, it seems consciously and cautiously committed to orthodoxy. It remains defined by the work of a few Germans in the mid-'90s, most of them orbiting the production duo/label Basic Channel. If all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, the same can be said about dub techno and this tiny group (though the American Rod Modell has managed to mount a successful counter-tradition). The most innovative dub techno releases tend to work through subtle mischief rather than mold-shattering blows to convention, and Grass and Trees—the new release by Jacob Long's project Earthen Sea—exemplifies this approach.
Long, a D.C. hardcore punk veteran who still rocks a fearsome beard and a stare like Satan's has been flirting with the late '90s intersection of ambient and club music for most of this decade. Last year's An Act of Love evoked dubby classics like Vladislav Delay's Multila but was equally as informed by the gauzy reveries of Gas and the hi-def, Ampex-treated ambient of latter-day torch-bearers like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Its dub techno DNA shone through mostly in its cold, corroded atmosphere, where everything seemed half-glimpsed through a fog. Grass and Trees is the reverse: it's much more orthodox, using sounds we might recognize from the genre's history, but somehow it doesn't feel like a dub techno album.
Most notably, it has no interest in obfuscation. Every element is plainly apparent, and there are rarely more than five or six per track. There aren't many new sounds to pick up on your fourth listen that you won't notice on your third. The dominant percussion sounds are an untreated MIDI clap and an ominous knocking that makes Grass and Trees less than ideal for listening to in a dark room. Rather than everything melting into a briny soup as occurs on An Act of Love or most of the music from which Long takes influence, Grass and Trees has an oblong, building-block quality. It feels freshly assembled and polished, not dredged up from the rusty abyss and run through an acid bath.
Long lavishes a lot of detail on the individual chords. Opener "Existing Closer or Deeper in Space" (Long is a romantic when it comes to song titles, which is really a 21st-century trend in ambient) is all about the way those big minor chords elegantly dissipate, spawning little echo-clones that spring to life and retreat just as quickly back into the earth. On "Shallow, Shadowless" Long seems to be manually dragging the chords across the ground. There's something curiously microscale about Grass and Trees, as if you're squinting at individual objects as if under a microscope or through a pair of binoculars.
The title of the record makes me think of the old expression "can't see the forest for the trees". That's the only real issue I have with this otherwise excellent album. It's so focused on individual sounds that it doesn't generate much atmosphere and isn't the kind of album you can get lost within. It's a small record, only 38 minutes long with all the tracks four or five minutes. "Living Space" stretches to nine minutes but doesn't make much of a point of it. It doesn't evoke the vastness of the universe but implies it, taking us into a thicket and leaving no stone unturned before gently leading us back out.
Yet I suspect I haven't yet unlocked the full potential of this album. As I write this, my native San Francisco is in the middle of an uncomfortable hot spell. It's been sunny for weeks, with temperatures soaring into the 90s. Though raised in D.C. and now in New York, Long has lived in San Francisco in the past, naming an early release Ocean Beach after the windswept strip of land that separates the city from the roiling sea. San Francisco is almost always fogged out in the late summer months—dub techno weather. If I were to write this review two months from now, I'd probably like it even more.