Dark Roots: Earth's Sonic Journey

There was a time – before some of their fans were even born, in fact – when the band Earth were associated with, above all, crushing waves of distorted guitar.

Taking the juggernauts of rock and metal and dismantling them to leave only the transcendent power of the open chord, they made a name for themselves with songs that were slow in pace, largely instrumental and heavy enough to be described at the time as ‘ambient metal’. Occasionally these songs would feature vocals, originally contributed by none other than Kurt Cobain, and then later by founder and guitarist Dylan Carlson. Accidentally kickstarting the drone metal movement with their first releases – most notably their 2003 debut full-length, curiously titled Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version – it was with Pentastar: In The Style Of Demons, released in 1996, that Dylan truly revealed his rock roots, this being the band’s last release for over nine years as they spiralled into inactivity via temporarily insurmountable legal and pharmaceutical hurdles.

Earth’s eventual return was a major surprise in itself, but eyebrows were further raised when it became clear what a different entity the band had become. Though retaining the hypnotic repetition for which they were known, the outfit had dropped not only their rock and metal leanings but also the distortion and vocals, opting instead for a cleaner and more minimal form of expression. Drenched in Americana, their return album, Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method, offered a drone take on the country template, and though Dylan has gently steered away from the sound of the American West toward that of English folk over the last decade (a point underlined not only by the last two Earth albums, Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I and II, but also Dylan’s solo work), the group have refused to return to the sound of their first incarnation…

…Until now, that is. The new album, Primitive And Deadly, is a genuine curveball, once more embracing not only the world of rock, but the use of the human voice, this time via guest vocalists Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens Of The Stone Age) and Rabia Shaheen Qazi (Rose Widows). Indeed, the band itself is a different entity to the one that recorded Angels…, retaining only core members Dylan and drummer Adrienne Davies from the previous lineup and utilising a new bass player and additional guitarists. Like us, you may be wondering: what’s going on? And who better to ask than Dylan himself?

“Well, obviously Angels… I and II was the obsessional period of exploring English folklore,” he begins with one of his distinctive chuckles. “That’s still there but I didn’t want Earth to be tied to that. There’s not a super-huge difference with what I do with Earth and my solo work, but I can explore that now with the solo thing and then Earth is able to do what Earth does. I guess it’s about responding to multiple interests through two different channels. I kind of joke about Primitive And Deadly being a mid-life crisis record, me returning to my misspent metal youth.”

Mid-life crisis or not, the new record definitely is a return to the rock and metal roots of the band’s central protagonist. Not only is the sound heavier, but the songs are far more traditional in their construction, and where more recent albums utilised a large degree of improvisation, here the songs are relatively concise, disciplined and tight.

“I’m always trying to set myself new goals with music,” Dylan explains. “There was an idea about making this a more punchy record. I mean I’ve done the long form and… it’s kinda not that special anymore. It’s become, ‘Oh, we’re this sort of band, and so we do these long songs’, you know? Like, ‘This is all we do.’ I mean, I love all kinds of different music but at the end of the day I like rock, I like hard rock. And no matter what we do, on iTunes we’re still in the metal section.”

He laughs again, before adding, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s kind of funny how some people fight to get out of that – and maybe I felt that way sometimes – but ultimately that’s where I came from and that’s where I’m at, regardless of the influences that I bring in.”

Earth have always been about giving a new interpretation to traditional musical influences, the band marrying older and sometimes relatively conservative music forms to unusual and almost avant-garde structures. It could be argued that this album does the same thing, except that this time the traditional music form in question is the very one that Dylan grew up in. Either way, the band continue to walk a curious tightrope between tradition and innovation.

“I think the goal with Earth is to make something timeless,” Dylan ponders. “I can’t be the judge of that, I just have to do what I do and let the chips fall where they may. But it’s funny to me because everybody talks about ‘post-rock’ and ‘rock is dead’ and ‘punk killed rock’n’roll’ and whatever, and it’s like, if that’s the case, why is hearing a really great rock band still so exciting? Why does hearing [UFO’s] Too Hot To Handle for the 50 millionth time still get you fucking excited? That’s why I hate that ironic take on rock. This shit really mattered, and it still matters, and it’s still exciting. And other forms of music just don’t do it.”

Of course, though Primitive And Deadly harks back to Earth’s earlier days – most specifically Pentastar… – there are still some who would like the band to return to the drone metal sound they pioneered on Earth 2… – a record that helped give birth to an entire scene, one that includes Sunn O))), who even released a song in their early days called Dylan Carlson.

All the same, Dylan himself is not terribly quick to embrace his position as the godfather of the genre…

“I mean, I don’t have anything against them,” he says of the bands from the drone metal scene that have grown up in his footsteps, “they did what I did, they took their influences and transmuted them into their own thing. I actually never thought of drone as a genre, I thought of it more as a technique, but if people want to call it a genre, then… cool.” He laughs, “It’s flattering to be credited with inventing it or whatever, but I don’t feel anything is ever invented in music. Music is a continuum and you’re just channelling your ancestors or whatever and it’s coming out different.”

In many regards, Earth’s recent releases have echoed this philosophy, retaining the open-endedness of Earth 2…, and simply conveying themselves via a cleaner sound. The more stripped-down nature of Primitive And Deadly, on the other hand, is rather more direct and literal, not least because of the use of vocals and lyrics. It’s clearly something Dylan has been careful to keep in mind when utilising these elements on the new record.

“It’s funny, I’ve never been opposed to vocals,” he concludes. “It was just a case of finding the right thing. But I’ve never ruled out any instrument from the mix. One of the things I always liked about instrumentals is the participatory element the listener is involved in. But I think vocals can be done in a way that is less, ‘OK, this is what the song’s about’,” he smiles. “There’s always a way to make them more inclusive and to resonate with the listener.”

Primitive And Deadly is out now via Southern Lord.