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EarthAngels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light 1
Lester Whimpers ruminates on drone, Fahey, The Pentangle and the Tantras Of Gyütö as he explores Dylan Carlson and co's latest journey to rich and strange regions of the musical cosmos.
By Lester Whimpers
Ultimately, this can only be a partial review, in part because I have only heard the first instalment of Earth's new album, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, with the second part due to follow up sometime next year; (of course, a sprawling Bitches Brew style double album would have been most welcome, but it seems there was too much material in the end, so here we are) but also, and somewhat more significantly than this blunt fact of formatting, because Dylan Carlson has again overhauled the musical balance that had been dramatically established and perfected since 2005's Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method, bringing into the band new personnel (save for long-time drummer Adrienne Davies) and a new instrumental configuration including, most significantly for the overall sonic profile, a cellist, Lori Goldston. As a result of these facts, it seems to me that the horizons of this new Earth (Earth: Mark III? I'm not too sure entirely on the chronology anymore) are still as yet unfolding as the band goes about working out its new logic. However, to say that this record might seem somehow 'embryonic', or that things are 'beginning anew', is not meant to suggest that the music is somehow half-baked. Not at all. As the crappy voiceover at the beginning of the Dune movie says: “the beginning is a very delicate time” (um, sorry about that) and with this record we can undoubtedly hear Earth filling up a new space, reshaping itself onto a new set of contours, but leaving things pregnant with possibility for the future. The most obvious manifestation of this new outlook, it seems to me, is that compared to Hex, Hibernaculum and The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull, there is a certain loss of focus on this record. I do not mean a sloppy loss of focus here, but rather that a loss of focus can be deliberate or necessary in order to move into new pastures that might be regulated by a quite different ebb and flow of musical ideas and practice (just to lazily pick an extreme example of this, we might easily say that Ascension by John Coltrane displays a considerable loss of focus compared to the recordings on Atlantic of the classic quartet, but that would be a pretty stupid thing to bemoan in light of the greater history of skronk).
Perhaps, in fact, it would be better to say this record displays a loosening of focus; firstly, in that it just sounds a great deal more 'live' than Earth has ever previously sounded on record. I don't know if these tunes were put down as live takes but it seems likely that they at least began that way, as there is a definite improvisational interplay to be heard, particularly in the fantastically deep and enormous twenty-minute title track, which spasms into life with some deft low-register sparring between the bass and cello, soon being joined by Carlson's positively sparkling guitar. It's one of the highlights for many reasons, but not least because it is just so sonically unusual. In any event, things do feel much looser, much free-er than they used to, with the obvious importance that is placed on the tidal throb of the cello seeming to simultaneously anchor things down whilst also allowing them to breath amidst its undulations; events rising and falling on its rich and deep underpinning. Indeed, the instrumentation as a whole is far sparser than it has been in recent years. Any overdubbing is difficult to notice at all so the whole affair certainly sounds and feels much more like a band playing together than music painstakingly crafted in the studio part-by-part. But, perhaps most striking is the way in which the burden of the music is now carried by the interweaving of melodic lines rather than being harmonically anchored. The result of this is music that is far less dense and chordal than previous records, Bees in particular. This probably has something do with the substitution of the keyboards for the cello in the line-up, but there is a strong contrapuntal emphasis in evidence throughout, with the instruments setting up an emergent, melodic equilibrium between themselves and the band obviously really listening to each other, everyone occupying their particular niche effectively and subtly, and then just exploring the themes within the margins of this musical area; each individual sometimes pushing outwards and coming to the fore, or sometimes dropping away. It's all very restrained, somewhat mournful in tone, and very much an exercise in lightness and darkness. Indeed, I would say, that the essence of this new incarnation of Earth is perhaps precisely this subtle, improvisational exploration and exploitation of a whole spectrum of shades of unpredictability.
These are significant developments for Earth inasmuch as, for myself anyway, the great thing about the records including and since Hex was precisely the opposite to the above; it was how fantastically taut, composed and skeletal they were. When Hex appeared, it seemed Carlson had managed to suddenly discover a brand-new, hidden dimension within the Earth project as a whole, a dimension within which he could be a completely new kind of minimalist but yet still keep a golden thread of continuity running from the concerns of the early Earth. On Hex and Bees, the drone was still very much in evidence, but it almost seemed like it had been broken up into segments, and then that this new alphabet was bent and contorted into smaller more concise shapes and motifs; more fluid, less monolithic, and stacked into complexes of musical structures. The drone somehow became something implied, an invisible but efficacious presence ruling and ordering the musical cosmos. Carlson's perspective seemed to have pulled back so far as to be almost galactic. Whereas in Earth 2 you had your head inside the amplifier, completely swallowed up by the room set into motion as an unstoppable droning system, but at least the proportions were still more or less human in scope. Since Hex, Carlson seems to have been orchestrating entire solar-systems of vibration, conjuring these societies into the air, letting the harmonic constellations ring out precisely, with all possible focus concentrated upon each momentary individuation as they drag themselves into your ears, combust into sound, finally perishing and fading into nothingness, their work complete; an almost ritualistic obsession with the life-cycle of vibration.
The point is that Carlson became a supremely self-controlled and minimalistic player and composer. I remember seeing a comic strip online a few years ago — I can't seem to find it now — that perfectly summed up the live experience around this time. It was only four panels on the page, each frame showed a couple of hipsters in the crowd, plaid shirts and beards in evidence I think, watching Carlson on stage, twanging a single note out of his guitar; so in every panel he would be there on the stage, the hipsters looking on, and a sound effect like “traaaaaanggg” bursting forth, in the next “drannnnnnggggggg”, and again in the third “ddddaaaaaaaaaaaang,” but finally in the last panel there was just a disembodied speech bubble emanating from somewhere in the audience, shouting out “FUCK YEAH!” Well, it made me laugh, because it was exactly right, those gigs around that time were just like that. Carlson more or less motionless with his guitar, the band carving out these enormous, resonating spaces framed by the total precision of each incoming and highly anticipated note doing its hard work in creating the scaffold of a series of extremely slow, doomy arpeggios of dank, emotional glory. (And these were definitely emotional records. I still rush hard on quite a regular basis to the totally euphoric theme found in the middle of Hex's An Inquest Concerning Teeth, and to the hazily melancholic Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine) from Bees, to pick out just a couple of favourite moments.)
He is still a masterful guitarist in this sense, with a technique quite incomparable, full of subtlety and a superlatively patient control of tone and timing; his often minuscule string-bends and vibrato are a wonder to behold. The depth of his playing is really the main attraction on this new LP; pungent and tangible, you can really plunge yourself into its folds and textures, inhabit its landscape of inflection, and quite easily find something new to pick out and fixate upon with each listen. Particularly special is the work on Descent To The Zenith, coming smack in the middle of proceedings, and having something as close to a groove as music this slow can probably have. Carlson's Telecaster weaves a beguiling cascade of descending motifs around which the cello plays a fluid and transparent counterpoint. Neither really comes to the forefront of the action at any point, they inhabit the activity equally, and I'm almost tempted to say that they seem shy of each other's presence, forming a gentle system of mutual attraction and repulsion. But in any case, it is a quite wonderfully controlled seven and a half minutes of music, and indicative of the general standard and tenor of the playing as a whole.
It has also been interesting to read recently that Carlson has been fixated on certain vintage British folk bands and he has tried to bring that spirit into this new record. He singles out The Pentangle and Fairport Convention in particular, if anything, actually, laying more emphasis on Fairport than the former. However it seems to me that Pentangle is a much better comparison. I would like to anally and nerdishly emphasise in this regard that Pentangle can be considered by no means whatsoever “Folk Rock”, which to be sure, the somewhat plodding Fairport Convention often were. I like Fairport enough sure, but Pentangle really was quite a different beast with its bizarrely unlikely tapestry of 60s British folk-boom guitar virtuosity, traditional songs, and a superlatively groovy and jazzy rhythm section. In fact, while Pentangle was definitely a bluesy affair more often than not (check out Turn Your Money Green from the live disc of Sweet Child, or Train Song from Basket of Light for a couple of good examples), backed up by Danny Thompson's always great double-bass and Terry Cox's sophisticated rhythmic sense (yes, there are breakbeats in evidence if you care about that) their jazz credentials (note de rigueur Mingus cover versions) were just as important as the equal parts of folk, country blues and singer-songwriter flavours brought to the table by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn's guitars and Jacqui McShee's crystalline vocals, and it is this seemingly effortless synthesis of styles with stellar musicianship that still give Pentangle their great and unusual appeal.
But immediately, when put alongside Earth, and comparing them only musically, this seems a pretty abstract proposition. Hex and Bees were resolutely and unmistakably American sounding records and I can't really detect much of a musicological change from that general direction on this record, neither harmonically nor melodically. There is no obviously British sounding modal content, and nary a hint of Renaissance balladeering either, so anyone expecting a full-on, Celtic, modal slowdown will probably be a bit disappointed, and I have to admit I was fully inhabiting the idea of Earth tackling a few canonical folk classics or sea-shanties at a glacial pace (a cover of Blackwaterside at 60bpm would have been pretty good let's admit it). And, similarly, while the various traditions of folk music from these damp green islands does often incorporate certain droning tonalities in its chords, it seems a bit of a push to make a lazy comparison with the drones of Earth and those found within the folk harmonies of Britain. Musically, they really are completely different entities; the former having been pushed to the very forefront of matters, an absolutely elemental and irreducible part of the vocabulary and logic of things, but in the latter being more of an architectonic and integrated presence, subordinated to the song and existing within the structure of the chords; not particularly emphasised or fetishised and knowing its proper place. It should, ideally, never interfere with the overarching musical idea, whereas with Earth, to a certain extent, the drone is the musical idea, even if, as noted before, this is now more of an implication than an outright presence.
So, I think that looking for any likeness in strictly musical terms is a bit of a red herring, but it is quite appealing in a more general sense; as that of an ethos, or a feeling, and seen in this way it seems to mesh well with Earth's new emphasis on the music being very much the product of the ensemble; of the band making their recordings as an integral, live unit. Considered like this I can see how this Earth definitely shares something in spirit with Pentangle's loose but limber playing, as they are really effortlessly locked together throughout, and on hearing that tautness, if this is indeed a more or less improvised affair, then they have managed to reach an impressively muscular synergy between themselves; at once static and solid as befitting the gravity of the sound itself, but simultaneously athletic and compelling within the inter-band dynamics.
But there is something more, hmm, metaphysical going on here, and I think it lies in precisely both Pentangle's and Carlson's ability to effect these daring syntheses between unlikely musical styles. Carlson has, it seems to me, always been a pretty fearless 'combinator' of, what we might call, musical syntaxes, or devices, that identify and evoke a particular tradition, and I have always admired his insistent ability to constantly break new ground with his music using the resources he finds lying around the place. It is, I think, reminiscent of another very American musician, John Fahey, and I think with regard to this kind of combinatory ethos I am muttering about, you might make the comparison that, if you know him well enough, Fahey's Fare Forward Voyagers, is kind of an 'Indian' or 'Eastern' sounding record, but making sure to flag the fact that we all know, really, this is just the induction of an impressionistic, Orientalist (I don't mean this to be pejorative here) kind of feeling; the music concocting for us a heady atmosphere peppered with pinches of exoticism, in a vague, intoxicating, almost cinematic way. I'll quote my very good friend on this as it can't really be improved upon:
When I listen to Fare Forward Voyagers I have this mental image of John Fahey trapped in a Yoga cult, until about halfway through, when he runs away on horseback and is chased by a gang of Ayurvedic enforcers, and it's a bit touch and go for a while, but at 17 minutes in he finally shakes them off and makes it back the plains of the Mississippi.
Just to clarify this point a little bit, I'm fairly certain that my own preconceptions of what 'Egyptian' music sounds like (scales prominently featuring a flattened second, etc.) is a cliché that was constructed in my mind probably pretty much entirely by watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lawrence of Arabia or whatever else too many times during the 1980s. And while this Hollywoodian image of 'Egyptian' music probably overlaps to some meagre extent with musicological reality, it is still kind of a load of bullshit, and a massively decontextualised oversimplification dependent on our own personal history of sensory-conditioning growing up with Western refractions of these cultures found within popular media. As if shoving a flat-supertonic into your ear-troughs could somehow summate and express the entire history of music within one of the world's greatest and most ancient cultures. No, this is, to use an appropriate metaphor, but a mirage, and a pretty good example of music's power to evoke in us effervescent images, thoughts, associations and feelings based on the symbols and signs floating around within our particular cultural point-of-view that can then be taken up and re-used by artists or composers on the basis that we all share a more or less overlapping cultural vocabulary (a 'semiosphere' or something) that is ready-made for plundering and recombination as seen fit.
I don't mean at all to suggest that Carlson's music is somehow a superficial poaching of musical images; quite the opposite in fact, and this is why I really like this comparison between Earth and Fahey (and similarly with Pentangle) and I really do mean it in the most complimentary way possible, as I think Carlson is a similarly masterful architect as John Fahey was in creating an American, impressionistic synthesis of musical traditions, feelings, images, vocabularies, symbols or whatever, thus producing a strange cocktail whose elements seem fairly obvious in analysis but that create a sum-of-the-parts that is quite hard to grasp as a totality. A totality that is, ultimately, just something new. Whereas for Fahey it was taking country-blues, bluegrass, ragtime, etc., fusing them with modern classical music, Bartók and the rest, peppered with the rarefied deployment of a studied dissonance, and all played on a steel-string acoustic guitar; for Carlson it has been taking drone, metal, the horizontal melodicism of raga, Blood Meridian and other such powerful images of Americana (note the invocation of Neil Young's long suffering and iconic Les Paul Goldtop 'Old Black' in the title of the opening track), slowness, and a perverse Country music (in fact, people often said that those records since 2005 sound like the desert somehow, and I wouldn't really disagree with that; with the feeling of a landscape unfolding in front of you carved of resonating abysses. I suppose 'country' music is a pretty good way to describe it considering such topographical metaphors and, of course, doubly appropriate taking into account the sudden and intense refocussing of Carlson's musical concentration on the characteristics and restrictions of the Fender Telecaster, the country guitar par excellence) to create something that is pretty remarkable and seemingly exotic, all of his own; a music that takes its nourishment from planting its roots down within several different and unlikely musical co-ordinates at once. For example whenever I listen to Earth 2, which I do quite often, I think the closest thing to it in spirit is the absolutely monumentally heavy and terrifying record Tantras Of Gyütö: Sangwa Düpa/Mahakalaon (on the pioneering Nonesuch Explorer imprint) by the Tibetan monks of the Gyütö Tantric College. Now, obviously I don't think this is intentionally a record or even a musical tradition Carlson was trying to 'copy' or emulate on that recording, or even if he has heard it at all, but the fact that it is possible at all to draw such a strange comparison I think is indicative of the way he goes about both listening to and making music and how the depth and freedom of his vision allows him to put deep, fundamental musical elements (or 'archetypes' maybe) into effect on his own terms, and consequently that this strong and bold ethos of omnivory he maintains brings him quite naturally to overlap with rich and strange regions of the human musical cosmos as a whole so imbuing his work with its uncanny magic and power.
Well, in the end, my only real complaint is that this collection just feels like half the story. The tracks are so long in themselves that there seem to be just too few of them for it to be a really satisfying listen in total. This isn't at all a musical complaint, and probably issues itself totally from the physical separation of the releases, which I'm sure was a purely logistical solution of record labels and timetables for what is obviously a difficult kind of music to format anyway. Perhaps this is also partly the source of the feeling of an unfolding taking place, and when we hear the second volume all these considerations will probably undergo a kind transformation as they are put into context with the rest of the music from the same sessions. I think that, ultimately, this record represents a subtilization of Earth's music. Like the lightness and darkness of the title, the band have taken the scaffolding of their previous musical practice but have now turned their concentration to working out a system of melodically-driven improvisational chiaroscuro within the fixed rigour of the music's emphatic formal and spatial constraints. And this, if anything, is the most impressive thing about this record; that music constructed and played with such control and precision on such limited instrumental means can draw into its orbit such a subtle continuum of colour, luminosity and shadow, finally leaving us with something so rich and strange; rich and strange.