Empty Bottle, 9/24
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
—Sylvia Plath, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”
When it comes to music, introverts get a bad rap. It’s as though having an “I” in your Myers-Briggs profile means you love to get up in front of lots of people with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a sense of entitlement, and plenty of intimate melodramas to sing about–or worse yet, that you love to listen to that crap. But we introverts are fully capable of enjoying ourselves at raucous keggers or neotribal nekkid fests. We can orbit the same star as everybody else; we just do it out of the plane of the ecliptic. Sometimes the music is enough to occupy our minds completely, so we don’t even feel guilty for not socializing, and other times we’re half listening to that little voice in the back of our heads that’s wondering if we’d be having more fun alone on the couch with a glass of wine and a good collection of old Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes.
Sylvia Plath was right: very often the pleasure of solitude is cold and planetary. And Earth–the Seattle-based band that basically consists of guitarist Dylan Carlson and whoever he’s working with now–offers some of that same sort of pleasure. Ordinary lusty rock ‘n’ roll usually revs people up with speed–it takes the rhythms of pulse and breath and throttles them up just the right amount. But Carlson and company mercilessly refuse to play at a tempo that’s comfortable for the average human’s body. They bring it way way down, past even Sabbathy ‘lude rock, into an icy zone of dark-matter density–you wonder if this deep, deep sludge is being played by Ents or trolls or some other creature that has a longer life span and a much slower metabolism than we do. They aren’t setting the controls for the heart of the sun like so many psychedelic rock bands–they’re trying to tunnel to the center of the earth, and they don’t care how long it takes to get there. There’s nothing communal here, no reaching out to the audience–just riffing and every so often drumming, slow and inexorable as water eroding stone. There aren’t lyrics or vocals or any other attempt to represent human emotion. The music aims for the transpersonal and ecstatic through physical mortification and self-negation.
This was radical stuff in the early 90s, when Earth started–if it sounds less so now, that’s mostly because, a la the Velvet Underground, everybody who bought Earth’s first record seems to have started a band. (Joe Preston, who was on that first record, the 1991 Sub Pop EP Extra-Capsular Extraction, seems to have been in half of them himself.) But Earth’s first full-length, 1993’s Earth 2, still stands as a sort of limbo bar of heaviness–even now there aren’t too many people who can go lower.
That said, the current incarnation of Earth is sparser, leaner, and cleaner than the early-90s version: the band’s new Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method (Southern Lord) has the barren, melancholy quality of a Nevada landscape, and could easily double as the sound track to an even weirder version of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (maybe one that draws out a single grim moment for hours, like a Michael Snow film). Hell, if it weren’t for the dark, clangy guitar tunings, you could convince yourself you were listening to an early Calexico album at the wrong speed–Carlson even plays banjo, swear to God. But I’m convinced that the relative calm of the album’s first half hour is intended to lull the unsuspecting into dropping their guard before the elegant, incantatory, monstrous grind of “Raiford (The Felon Wind)”–which is, as it happens, also the track with the banjo. Carlson would scheme like that. He’s already proved himself to have a kind of reptilian, Machiavellian patience in his music.
Drummer Adrienne Davies, currently the band’s other core member, is de-emphasized in the album mix, but onstage at the Empty Bottle last weekend she was the spine of the beast, mesmerizing to watch as she bowed and swayed, just as involved in the beats she didn’t play as the ones she did. Every eloquent thud seemed to come after a long anticipation–the aim of rhythm like this isn’t to surprise but to crash down with all the inevitability of destiny. I’d never heard wind chimes sound so fucking metal.
The album makes effective and ominous use of near silence, but this can be hard to pull off live when your band’s MO involves turning up to 11. The trio, rounded out by bassist John Schuller, didn’t try terribly often–but when they did, they made it count. The lovely, menacing “Lens of Unrectified Night” is all about protracted tension, and Carlson landed on its climactic chords so viciously I barely missed the ghostly pedal steel that shadows the main guitar riffs on the disc.
Earth wasn’t a particularly warm or chatty band onstage, and that seemed appropriate. The audience was a picture of solipsistic bliss, like a bunch of long-haired, jeans-wearing slo-mo dervishes, all caught up in their own isolated pockets of mystic communion with the Force. You can’t “party” to this stuff. You probably shouldn’t have sex to it. You can’t even really drive to it–unless you drive like a 90-year-old.
Myself, I was a little disappointed. This new, stripped-down Earth doesn’t often land on your head like Judgment Day. The music’s slinkier and subtler and at times even kind of boring–though Carlson and friends clearly aren’t afraid of coming off that way. After all, they’re not bored–they’re going to their private happy places, and you’re responsible for your own. That’s why I wish the set had been longer: given that I was required to immerse myself in the music, rather than simply wait for it to draw me in, some more time would’ve been useful. As it was, I ended up admiring it from a distance, the way you might watch the moon inch across the sky.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.