who: Earth, with Daughn Gibson and Stebmo
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thurs., Nov. 8 (9 p.m. $10. thegreyeagle.com)
The covers to the two parts of Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, the quadruple-LP collection that the Seattle-band Earth finished unveiling in February, are an arresting tandem of stylized confusion. With an aesthetic that resembles Where the Wild Things Are, the first painting pictures a monster with a fiery mane felled by a knife to the back from a smaller, horned creature. The killer smiles wickedly, making it unclear who in the picture is the hero, and who is the villain. The second cover shows a parade of similarly dressed humanoids. Their leader sits astride a red, horse-like animal with long, sharp horns. He sports a wide, evil grin, again muddying the viewer’s distinction between friend and foe.
These images of confusion and death pair well with the mystical quality of Earth’s slow-moving desert rock. Recasting the dramatic patience of his ‘90s doom metal permutations, leader Dylan Carlson stretches out with eerily transfixing guitar lines that carry for long stretches before fading out. The mood is bolstered by grave cello and minimal drumming, the music becoming a journey that thankfully never seems to end. Angels’ covers are also emblematic of the dark and disorienting time that produced this sound.
Half of the lineup that had toured behind Earth’s previous effort — 2008’s tranquil yet foreboding The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull — departed shortly before the band was set to enter the studio. But that wasn’t the worst of the pre-session news: Carlson was diagnosed with liver failure and hepatitis B. With his health up in the air and Earth’s lineup uncertain, the outfit prepared to record what could have conceivably been its last album.
“All the sudden having half of your members not able to do it when you’re about to head in the studio is always going to be scary,” says Adrienne Davies, Earth’s drummer and Carlson’s wife. “But then we had the added compound issue of Dylan’s health. Luckily, things are definitely better now, and he’s figured it all out and is doing a heck of a lot better. But at the time, I know he was feeling that imminent, looking over his shoulder, not knowing how much time he had, not knowing if this was going to be the last album. You’re already in an emotional state when you care about someone, and you’re not sure how they’re doing. It made us put that extra effort in and put in all we had. You want to be good, and you especially want it to be good if it might be the last thing you do as a group.”
The heavy circumstances helped galvanize Earth’s new lineup. Lori Golston, a cellist whose credits include Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, was brought into the fold along with bassist Karl Blau, who records whimsical, weird and sometimes bluesy folk under his own name. Though such situations can obviously be a unifying force, they can also add pressure, especially for an ensemble that hadn’t played together previously. But Davies says this wasn’t the case. Entering the studio with only about three songs prepared, the players improvised freely and extensively, leading to a backlog of material that necessitated two releases.
“We didn’t have enough songs to do even one album,” Davies recalls. “I think that fear of, ‘Oh, this could blow up in our face,” is kind of what spurred that burst of creativity and just going for it and not worrying about whether it was perfect or not. It just kind of took the reins of everyone to just listen. That’s the problem with some improv is everyone’s just going for it all the time, but there’s an element of restraint that you need to use when you’re doing our music. It was a really good mix of the creative, just going for the ideas, and also really listening to each other and being able to hold back and have it be very cohesive instead of just free-form jazz bebop.”
The results of this chemistry are some of Earth’s most hypnotizing offerings. “Old Black” opens Part 1 on a dark, blues-tinged note, an elongated riff bending and contorting as it’s passed between guitar and cello, graced by the rhythm section’s elegant back and forth. Part 2 is more subdued. On “His Teeth Did Shine Brightly,” Carlson's airy, far-off guitar works through ominous progressions, punctuated by cymbal brushes and metronomic bass.
“You’re allowing the music to kind of swell and breathe at its own rate,” Davies says of the approach. “It’s almost like a living, breathing organism, and that’s kind of what we’re going for with the newer songs and the last few albums. Just letting notes fade out and not having something happening at all times.”
Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.