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The Old West was a brutal place to live. In fact, I'd rank the Old West as the worst time and place you could have been alive, after ancient Egypt and the Dark Ages. Life was dangerous, harsh, monotonous and dreary, which is almost exactly how I'd describe this album by drone pioneers Earth. This is an interesting album, and of a style that isn't too often seen. Instead of the enormous fluctuating walls of bass and low end that usually define drone, this is made up of entirely clean instrumental playing in a style that really brings the epic Western music of Ennio Morricone to mind.
This album is basically 45 minutes of really, really, really slow and really, really, really heavy country/western music, with hints of the bands drone history as well as some psychedelic moments thrown in. The guitars twang sounds like something out of a Johnny Cash era country album and definitely give the album a real authentic Western flavor. There's no real amazing solos or crazy riffing going on here; this is pure mood/atmospheric music. Some songs, such as An Inquest Concerning Teeth and Tethered to the Polestar convey feelings of hope and more uplifting themes, while tracks like the ominous Raiford (The Felon Wind) really bring to mind images of the Badlands in all their desolate and harsh glory and is the only time I've ever heard a banjo sound heavier than a metal guitar. Raiford (The Felon Wind) is the probably my favorite song off the album simply because it's one of the most crushing songs I've ever heard yet still manages to retain its country/western style. Being a drone album (and I use "drone" loosely here) this is very slow and repetitive music; it really has more in common with ambient than drone, I think. There's moments here and there where the music really isn't that interesting, and part of me thinks that this goes along with the dreariness of pioneer life, and the other part of me says they just ran out of ideas for the song at hand. But for the most part the music is engaging and genuinely atmospheric, calling up images of vast deserts and canyons, vultures circling and many other harsh realities of life in the Old West.
If you're looking for normal, happy and upbeat western music, this is not for you. However, if your looking for authentic, truly mood setting western styled drone/ambient, or just interesting country/western music in general, this album is for you. While not perfect, as it can drag on as ideas are simply repeated over and over, this is an all round interesting album by a fantastic band.
At first I thought this album was some kind of ambient metal emulation of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack with a feel that recalls mid-1970s Pink Floyd at their most depressed and desolate. (For those who don't know, Ennio Morricone is an Italian composer who wrote music for 1960's spaghetti western movies directed by a guy called Sergio Leone who employed an actor called Clint Eastwood in a lot of them.) Further hearings have now convinced me that "Hex ..." is actually a highly expressive and quite emotional recording that has nothing to do with spaghetti or paella westerns but which uses the repetitive and often monotonous minimalism and slow pace of doom metal to call up the huge flat and oppressive horizons of the prairies, deserts and badlands of North America, and to draw attention to the loneliness and grimness of life for farmers, cowboys and other rural people in late 19th century / early 20th century America. Dylan Carlson plays his guitar very slowly so that each pained tone in nearly every riff is drawn out and assumes a sonorous weight and importance it wouldn't otherwise have. Clear and plain production creates a huge cavernous space that adds to the oppressive atmosphere and interacts with the music.
Most tracks consist of long and drawn-out guitar riffs that are repeated over and over (often with variations in detail as the pieces progress) against equally slow, pared-down and monotonous percussion so some listeners may find the music just barely hangs together. There may be several riffs in some tracks so that they never sound like extended intros that go nowhere. However skeletal the music seems, the all-instrumental pieces are well-crafted and complete in themselves. Track titles like "The Dire and Ever Circling Wolves", "An Inquest Concerning Teeth" and "Left In The Desert" are terse descriptions of the harsh and unforgiving physical environment of the American West in the 1800's and the tough and laconic people it bred; no lyrics, ambient effects and field recordings are required here.Track 7, "Raiford (The Felon Wind)", uses a stark neo-primitive beat and equally distinctive rhythm to acknowledge the mysterious shamanist Native American presence in the landscapes evoked and perhaps to lament the passing of a once-proud, dignified and freedom-loving people. Track 9, "Tethered to the Polestar", suggests a journey towards hope (and the guitar tones seem a bit lighter and hopeful in a hesitant way) but still the track is rather ambiguous and even the title itself hints that there's no other, possibly better, alternative to the hard trek that must be made.
The album can be heard both as a set of individual pieces or in its entirety as a soundtrack to an imaginary historical documentary to the American West. Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies have pulled off a coup in extending the reach of doom metal with its distinctive characteristics into ambient soundscape territory. The idea of an urban working class industrial blues music being used to describe the lonely and harsh life of a different yet in many ways parallel world (and successfully at that) is not a little ironic. Overall, this is a very evocative and beautifully made recording and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in finding out how far experimenting with doom metal elements can go.
Earth's previous album's haven't really impressed me all that much. I know that they're all influential and stuff.. But I just found them really boring, to be honest, lacking ambience and mood, just lots of really slow riffs going absolutely nowhere. But after hearing "A Plague of Angels" (Sweet song name) from their split with Sunn O))), I decided to get this album, and damn it's good. I'm sure most people have a vague idea of what this album's about- A drone album evoking the old west and all that went along with it. Basically, that's what this album is, nothing more and nothing less. But, it evokes that atmosphere so unbelievably well, with such depth and feeling, that it's impossible to ignore or forget.
A typical track on this album consists of a lonely guitar (or two, if you're lucky) plucking away an extremely lonesome, country-ish melody. The tempo isn't as slow as Earth 2, though it's still really slow, and as such as it's hard to pick the melody, because the notes are just so damn far apart. This is backed up by some minimalist, but effective drumming, which gives the songs their structure and rythym. For the most part, that's all there is, though there's some excellent, uplifting slide stuff in An Inquest Concerning Teeth, and Raiford has some interesting sitar (?!) work at it's intro.
After a little while though, you stop listening to the different instruments, and just immerse yourself in the slow, churning soundscapes. The world slowly fades away, and in you're in a desert, with a hot wind blowing and heaps of flies, and you're killing Indians. Or you're in a standoff with some bad guy. Something like that. But there's also moments where you're out in the desert at night, and all you see is millions of stars, and everything is quiet, peaceful and beautiful. This is especially true in the low, bassy synths/horns that open up The Dry Lake.
This is possibly the most evocative album I've ever heard. As soon as the album starts you're in Arizona, or Nevada or somewhere. While I have to be in a certain mood for it, and while some people will likely find it extremely boring, this album is great- the slow, perfect guitars, the gentle, slo-mo drumming and all the other instruments, creating some of the best soundscapes you'll ever hear. Highly recommended for drone, ambient, country and even Post-Rock fans.
Edit: Just dropping the score a little bit..
Let me start be saying that I love drone, consider Earth 2 and Phase 3: Thrones And Dominions to be classic albums, and have been waiting with baited breath for Dylan Carlson to return to us with a new album. I love bands like Sunn O))) and Khanate, and by no means have a short musical attention span; in fact most of my favorite bands write very long, slower songs. With that being said, when I first heard this album, I found it almost astonishingly boring, and did something I almost never do, which was dismiss after the second listen.
Because, you see, this album is by no means drone as you know it. When I think drone, I think very long songs with little to no percussion or recognizable beat. I think slow, simple riffs layered with tons of feedback and noise. Most importantly, I think of a fucking huge bottom end, almost like taking the "heavy" out of "heavy metal" and having it stand alone as its own musical philosophy. I basically think a powerful, dark, heavy form of ambient music. This album possesses none of these qualities.
The thing that immediately stands out about this album is the complete lack of distortion and feedback coming from the guitars. While this can be found somewhat in the shorter, ambient tracks, the full length songs consists of completely clean guitar. For Earth lovers, this is shocking, not to mention dissapointing at first. I mean, here is the guy that basically turned guitar feedback into a subgenre of music, and we have a whole album of clean guitar? Something just seems out of place.
I would have been cool with that, however, had it not been the things this clean guitar was actually playing. While Earth has experimented with country western sounds in the past, this album embraces them full on, as evidenced by the awesome album art and the sparse country...I hesitate to call them riffs. Its more like every second or so, Dylan would pluck out a note, have it waver a bit, then pluck out another one, with extremely minimal drums in the background. That's it. For over seven minutes. That's the song. It takes a while to really identify the melodies in these songs because there is so much space between the notes. This is not unusual in most drone music, as the point of the songs is not the riffs themselves, but the huge sonic soundscapes they form. These songs, however, are almost jarring in their simplicity; not the riffs, but the sound itself. There just isn't much there at all.
Another thing I found most shocking is that there is much less layering on the guitar than I was expecting. Most of these songs seem to contain only one guitar track, and while I'm sure this was a concious decision, it makes the songs seem very dry and empty. Maybe that was the point? The frustrating thing is when there are multiple tracks, as on An Inquest Concerning Teeth and Raiford (The Felon Wind) it sounds simply fantastic; in fact, I'm can definately say that those are the two best songs on the album. The other songs just to be...lacking something, will make them seem that much more boring to first time listeners of the album. They certainly sounded that way to me at first.
At this point, you're probably wondering why I gave this album such a good score when I seem to have so many problems with it at the most basic level. To tell you the truth, I am wondering that myself. I'm wondering why I have the urge to put this album on right now. I'm wondering why I have been listening to it regularly since I first got it several weeks ago. By all intents and purposes, I should hate this record. Its sparse, dry, minimal, long, and not really heavy at all. It bored the hell out of me the first couple of times I heard it. So why have I gotten to love it so much?
I'm not sure. But whatever the reason, I love this album. I think Dylan Carlson knew exactly what he wanted to do when he first started writing Hex, and he did it. He knew he would shock, surprise, even alienate, but he ultimately came through in the end, and the result is awesome. I think its the ultimate testament to an artist's talent when he can take something that should sound bad and still somehow make it something you will want to listen to. In the hands of another musician, Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method would have crashed and burned. In the hands of the man behind Earth, somehow, someway, against all odds, this country-turned-drone album is a smashing success.
When I close my eyes while listening to this new album of Earth I see before me abandoned ghost towns in the wild west, indians at war with cowboys and those same cowboys hunting on buffalo's. And that's exactly what the band is aiming for, I think when viewing the pictures in the booklet which shows the indians, the cowboys, old farms and farmers and ofcourse the desert landscapes.
So what about the music?
Think of some country song, the you'd hear in some western movie, and imagine the song being more slow than it was, put in a very deep and noisy bass, a bass-drum that causes your stuff to fall of your table when played very loud and offer some ambient-like passages (including sounds of horses and such) which aren't too long or too short. That's what you'll hear by listening this record.
The only downside of this album is that the playtime isn't long enough (it's around 47 minutes). While with most other musical genres 47 minutes is long enough but I feel that drone needs to take it's time and should often take up more than an hour of playtime. But this downside is easily countered by just pressing the 'play' button again because 'HEX; Or Printing In The Infernal Method' will not bore you for a long time.
So this album is very recommendable for drone lovers (with a soft spot for western stuff). This music is very cool when reading those cowboy novels or playing these 'desperado's' games while running this in the background.