I almost did not go to this concert. A big deadline at my day job had me completely exhausted and the thought of a round-trip drive to Baltimore weighed heavily on me all afternoon. The tiredness and sense of drive-dread continued into the early evening. In fact at about 8:30, I posted this on twitter: “My day job killed me today. Trying to dig deep to make the drive to B’More for the EARTH concert but…#AllSignsPointToNo”.
Then a response tweet from MetalChris of DC Heavy Metal intervened a few seconds later to gave me the motivation I needed to drag my weary self out to my car. “You can do it man! I’ll be up there too, how often does Earth come around ya know?” Little did I know that my drive up would soon be extended by an extra hour thanks to some single lane action on 295N. By the time I got to Baltimore I was in pretty bad shape and felt like I was about to pass out.
The opening band didn’t help me feel any better. O Paon is a single woman playing guitar loops and singing so quietly that the bouncers were making audience members leave the room if they talked. Normally I would applaud this kind of enforcement, but I soon found myself and MetalChris being chastised for simply saying hello. Did I mention that O Paon’s music did nothing for me? Normally I try to be an enlightened listener, open to just about anything; but the tiredness, the crappy drive, and the fascist bouncer did not put me in a happy receptive place for O Paon’s Quebecoise mewling.
But I wasn’t there for this French-language, musical stage version of Jodie Foster’s film “Nell”; I was there to hear Dylan Carlson’s legendary instrumental metal band EARTH shake some internal organs. So after some conversation in the other room, we all returned to the main room and took up places for one of the best shows of the year.
EARTH is a legend in instrumental metal circles. Long before the term “post-metal” was being bandied about by every music blogger on the planet, EARTH was laying down epic, doom-laden tracks. Hell, before the internet was in most people’s homes and when blogs were arcane diaries for the pocket protector set; EARTH was crafting droning slabs of noisy genius that set them apart from just about anything else at the time. Over the years, EARTH has gone through many line-up changes, a break-up, a reformation with new members, and some dramatic style shifts. In that time, instrumental metal and drone have become legitimate sub-genres with large followings. Almost every band in those two scenes acknowledge their debt to EARTH’s trail-blazing weirdness and the genius of the band’s founder and only full-time member Dylan Carlson.
EARTH has a somewhat cult-ish following, so it felt appropriate to see the band’s current formation take the stage on Friday night. Dylan Carlson is a formidable looking dude wearing a leather vest and sporting an awe-inspiring sculpted, salt-and-pepper beard. Supporting him is a band of three intense-looking women on bass, cello, and drums. Collectively, the quartet come across looking somewhat like Charles Manson and the Manson girls band. Simply by appearing on stage, EARTH had already set an interesting mood in the room.
I’ll admit, I had built Carlson up in my imagination as a godlike musician capable of devastating audiences with a scowl and a guitar strum. So I was sort of surprised when Carlson spoke into the microphone to introduce the band and the set. He had an unexpected fragile voice and seemed a little uncomfortable talking to the crowd. However, he did talk to us quite a bit through the night. He introduced every song with the title (at a minimum) and some with a brief story. Rather than deliver a set that was a constant blanket of gloom, his intros lifted the weight off the audience between each song. This also gave him time to tune and made each song have its own identity. Which was important otherwise some of the songs could have run the risk of same-ness and run together.
There were huge swaths of EARTH’s set that could easily be classified as post-rock rather than post-metal. Carlson has stripped out a lot of the metal trappings from EARTH’s current sound. Also, there was nary an epic crescendo or noise-eruption to be found in the set. While the set lacked catharsis, it had atmosphere and unique rhythm to spare. In some ways, their set had a lot in common with experimental jazz sets I’ve seen. I found the music to be very calming and meditative for the most part. They played songs that spanned the band’s career, but their current arrangements gave them a more uniform sound that was less menacing and more cerebral.
The two things that struck me the most about EARTH’s set was Carlson’s use of sustained notes and the sudden counter-points issued by long-time drummer Adrienne Davies. After this show, I can definitely see how Carlson’s style of guitar playing influenced drone kings Sunn O))). Carlson would often strike a single note on his guitar and then ride it out for what felt like minutes. Shaking his guitar neck and doing other little tricks to put a spin or other effect on the note as it faded and worbled out of existence. It was pretty cool too when he would loop a note through a pedal and then lay another sustained note on top of it. These sustained notes drenched the room in atmosphere that was at times comforting and others slightly unsettling. Underscoring those droning guitar moments, Adrienne Davies would lay down muted, disjointed drum beats and then suddenly strike a cymbal as a counter-point. Her cymbal playing was amazing to watch and provided some of the most interesting and dramatic parts of the show.*
All told, this show was not as heavy or “metal” as I expected it to be. EARTH’s current sound is an extension of where Carlson has been for a few years now. Clean sounding and intricate, a few more points of light in the gloom than there used to be. It got me thinking about how post-rock bands seem to be drifting towards heavier sounds these days and post-metal bands seem to be walking towards the light. Maybe this partially explains EARTH’s latest album title “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light”. In fact the newer tracks Carlson played on Friday night seemed to be exploring the dichotomy in his style the most. I found this set to be a perfect example of the style shifts occurring in both genres, which only served to fascinate me further with Dylan Carlson and EARTH.**
* I don’t get to say that too often!
** Schedule conflicts aside, I’ll be seeing EARTH again in September at All Tomorrow’s Parties. It will be interesting to see what Carlson and company bring to the table three months from now.