Review of Primitive and Deadly
Dylan Carlson has come a long way. Make no mistake, putting Earth together has always been an ambitious project, from its name being an early moniker of Black Sabbath, to its obsession with crafting slow and impenetrable songs in long repetitive forms, Dylan Carlson has spun together a career of indie rock wet dreams. He was notorious for being Kurt Cobain’s best friend and provider of the gun that took his life, as discussed in the documentary Kurt and Courtney, but while Cobain took alternative rock and reshaped it, Carlson paved his way using instrumental soundscapes and rethinking the “riff.”
For Carlson, the riff is something that can be both static and in the state of mutation throughout the course of indefinitely long repetitions. It’s this meditative approach to music that spawned what we know now as the genre of “drone” which, over the course of the last twenty years, has spawned a huge following. He’s inspired record labels, festivals, and numerous bands with similar philosophies. Like Brian Eno, known as the “Godfather of Ambient,” Carlson is similarly known as the “Godfather of Drone” and those terms, while reductive, are not without merit and prestige.
Carlson revived the band Earth in 2005, shedding the abrasive atmospheric meanderings of 1993’s Earth 2, maturing its sound into an updated Ennio Morricone soundtrack with crushingly loud electric guitars riffs played at a crawling pace. After about a decade of relative inactivity and has been putting out records in intermittent spurts, their albums Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method (2005), The Bees Ate Honey Out of the Lion’s Skull (2008), Angel of Darkness, Demon of Light pt. 1 (2011) and Angel of Darkness, Demon of Light pt. 2 (2012). Their latest record Primitive and Deadly follows with a similar affect, the guitar riffs are pretty much the same, the difference being the context.
On The Bees Ate Honey…, the riff was couched between Steve Moore’s keys and Bill Frisell’s jazz fusion guitar, on Angels of Darkness, Demon of Light pt 1 and 2, we found Lori Goldston’s cello weaving countermelodies around the riff. On Primitive and Deadly we see an interesting development of lyrics and vocals droning melody on top of riffs that are so crushingly slow that none of the five songs go below eight minutes. Carlson has always worked on large canvases when painting and this is no exception.
The use of lyric and melody is an odd choice by Carlson who’s always used the guitar riff as the primary vehicle to set up the space which the riff occupies and then exploring that space. On Primitive and Deadly Carlson asks Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees) and Rabia Shaheen Qaz (Rose Windows) for vocal contributions. Qaz’s contribution succeeds where Lanegan’s does not because she manages to compliment the music, attacking her part with ethereal grace. Her part is mostly longer tones hanging around a couple notes, singing “There is a darkness / that gently carries me” which fits the song but Earth in general. Lanegan’s part in “There is a Serpent Coming” adds bluesy improvised lines which could have easily been thrown away. It’s not that his parts don’t “go” it just distracts too much from the riff. There’s too much space taken up by the vocals and, what could have been a meditation, is broken by the wandering voice looking for a comfortable space. Unfortunately, that space is never found, and it’s not until “From the Zodiacal Light” that a balance is struck again.
One thing I would never before call Earth is indulgent, at least not in the last ten years. The space that Earth normally occupies is a carefully constructed and sparse one, where every note seems thought out and spaced accordingly. On the contrary the space that “Even Hell Has its Heroes” occupies is a surprisingly busy and improvised one. Carlson guest stars two other guitarists (Brett Nelson from Built to Spill and Jodie Cox) to trade solos for almost the entirety of the nine plus minutes. The tempos are still crushingly slow and Adrienne Davis’s drums keep things on an even keel, but the track has an almost fun element to it – a pentatonic jam session of monolithic proportion. Carlson seems to enjoy being indulgent after being so controlled and concerned with being so heavy for so long.
For the last track, “Rooks Across the Gates” Lanegan returns to vocal duties with a stronger result than “There is a Serpent Coming.” This song is huge and it plods along trading guitar lines with vocal melody, keeping what could be a monotone song interesting and invigorated with every twist and turn. This is where the Carlson’s spaghetti western soundtrack obsession comes out in full swing and you can almost see the cowboys walking towards each other with an exaggerated swagger. It also invokes the loneliness of the weary traveler, a characterization that could broadly summarize Earth’s entire career.
While he’s not always looking to meet his listener half way in terms of accessibility, Carlson’s music has always been a soundtrack for the isolated and wandering. Not unlike his similarly minded Michael Gira from the band Swans, he’s an aging product of the 80s and 90s finding creative rejuvenation in the current iTunes culture. Primitive and Deadly acts as a necessary counterpoint to immediate gratification, but, as with anything primarily instrumental, it ultimately rewards with repeated listening and introspection.