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Let me first admit something. Like everybody else, the first Earth album I heard was Earth 2. And like most people with an open mind and a great tolerance for repetitive sounds, I enjoyed the fuck out of it. There was just something somewhat mystical and otherworldly about the atmosphere that was being created. I read another review that described Earth 2 as being the sonic equivalent of being forced through a small space. I can agree with this, however I want to expand on it. Imagine some great force has got a hold of your cranial mass during Seven Angels and Teeth of Lions, and then during the space into Like Gold & Faceted, this somehow strong universal force begins to get stronger and stronger until you can almost no longer bear it, or get over that state and become one with the drone. It's beautiful, really.
When Phase 3: Thrones & Dominions was released, it seemed like a totally different Earth. Sure, Divine & Bright may have hinted towards the riffy, distorted, repetitive grooves, but after the monstrosity of Earth 2 it really didn't seem like the next step. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Phase 3. Like most studio Earth offerings, it's amazing. Just different.
Pentastar goes further with the rock style, this time including a drummer for quite a large chunk of the record. Where Phase 3 had a mix of long ass power drones (Site Specific, Phase 3, and Thrones & Dominions) and short(ish) basic rock songs, Pentastar has lots more fleshed out rock songs and just a couple ambient tracks. Oh, let me add this as well. The first time I heard Pentastar on vinyl, and I highly fucking suggest doing so. Sub-Pop recently reissued all the earlier Earth recordings on vinyl, so pick it up if you can. Anyways, on with it. Hearing Pentastar for the first time, I couldn't help but think just how solid of an effort it was, and still is. It's so solid I'm gonna do an impromptu song-by-song.
No introduction needed, really. The chord progression that every Earth fan has grown to know and love, it immediately sets up the mood of the album. A fine start.
A quicker song and a great second track, this simple two riff almost country song features four whopping verses of vocals from Carlson. Absolutely stellar, can't really say much more.
Crooked Axis For String Quartet:
This is an interesting meditative ambient piece. Like the title says, it features four stringed intruments, and is the first of the three ambient tracks.
This is the greatest coupling of songs ever. The riff that kicks in after Crooked Axis is incredible, and for some strange reason I've decided these songs were meant to be together. Look at the lyrics (oh yeah, this is the only other song to have vocals, awesome).
The world it spins on a crooked axis
Left it twitchin' by the road
Anyways. This song just rules, and if you can find the video for this song you'll thank yourself. I still don't know why this song hasn't been in any crime movies.
Charioteer (Temple Song)
Another ambient track, which definitely sounds like it could have been on Phase 3. One riff, three guitars, five minutes. It's very eastern sounding and thus quite soothing.
Peace In Mississippi:
A Hendrix cover. With a great guitar solo. I'm speechless about this song actually. You need to hear it for yourself.
Sonar & Depth Charge:
Thee most minimal track on the entire album, a solid 7 minutes of just two chords played on a piano. Very quiet, very trancey, and bound to annoy the shit out of people with short attention spans. Beautiful.
Coda Maestoso in F(flat) Minor:
Hey! It's that riff that we all love. This is the version of the song they have been playing on their current Hex/Bees tours, and bloody rights. This is a fantastic song, complete with a little lead guitar break out and some organs. Ultimate.
I've heard lots of negative reactions towards Pentastar, but honestly, I don't see what's to dislike. It has that special Dylan Carlson touch, and it seems much more thought out than Phase 3 (which is amazing in it's own right). It's an album that has rang true for many people I've showed it to, who have all seemed to dig the stoner vibe that oozes forth. Most importantly, it rings true to me, and will be something I will listen to continually as long as record players are still in production.
This album is as close as Earth ever got to making a rock / pop kind of record back in the 1990's. In some ways it's not so much doom metal or even heavy metal as alternative / indie / college radio rock but done in a way that recalls late 1960's psychedelic rock. The band - yes, for this recording Dylan Carlson assembled a full working "rock band" with a drummer, a bassist, another guitarist and a keyboards player - even nods in the direction of the late 1960's alternative music scene by including a cover of the Jimi Hendrix song "Peace In Mississippi" which in its original form was probably referring to the racial violence that was taking place in that state at the time. And then we have Carlson himself singing on a couple of songs on this album! Yet for all the apparent nostalgia and the move to a more mainstream rock music style, Earth have retained their minimalist riff-based repetitive doom metal template on most songs though it does vary and tends to be more obvious on tracks like "Introduction", "Sonar and Depth Charge" and "Charioteer (Temple Song)" than on others like "High Command" where it's almost watered down.
Each of the 8 tracks here, apart from the intro and the outro, differs from the rest in some way. Nostalgia buffs and kids curious about the kind of music available to their parents and grandparents years ago may be interested in "Peace In Mississippi" which is pretty much a lead guitar workout over a basic bass / drums rhythm backing and featuring some wiggly guitar chords that sound really dated! The minimalists among us may hanker after the mostly two-note piano piece "Sonar and Depth Charge" which is like a never-ending tape loop. Of course if piano ain't your thing, "Introduction" and "Coda Maestoso in F (flat) Minor", the intro and outro respectively, are strong on the same repetitive guitar riff build-up (yes, we Earth fans can never have enough repetition!) and only really differ in that "Coda ..." features a lead guitar break-out.
Carlson doesn't usually sing much but when he does on "High Command" and "Tallahassee", his voice actually isn't that bad and sounds fairly confident enough but it's quite distant in the mix and is treated with reverb. "High Command" seems the least Earth-like of the songs here, it has a definite melody and about two or three riffs that swap around on a regular basis.
And if you're looking for something remotely resembling the drone doom metal that Earth is famous for, you'll actually find it on the most un-Earthly-sounding track "Crooked Axis for String Quartet", a surprisingly airy and light piece that has a long strung-out bass drone.
The album isn't quite on a par with Earth's previous albums, it sounds very much like the distinctive Earth style with the spacious open-prairie feel and the solitary-loner Western-desert ambience has been forced to compromise with a more narrow commercial music mind-set so some of the songs seem cramped and restricted in expression.
I've always thought of Earth as being very "American" or rather encapsulating what I most admire about old Americana: the terseness that you find in the deadpan song titles, the feel of wide open spaces with all the possibilities they offer, the loneliness and solitary vision of the outsider, the shamanistic Native American presence that's as close as a drumbeat ... part of this "American"-ness is present on "Pentastar ..." but not as much as on Earth's other albums that I've heard.
If you're a fan of the Earth we all know and love, that is, Special Low-Frequency Earth, you might be disappointed by this album. Gone are the minimalistic drone riffs and earth-shattering low end. The songs are shorter and faster by Earth 2 standards, but it's not quite as bizarre or out there as 1990 or Extra-Capsular Extraction. But the truth is, behind those two extra guitarists, drummer, and organ player, it's still the same old Earth.
Where Dylan Carlson began by inverting and insanely downtuning those first three chords, he moved on to draw from the same well as those primordial metalheads, Black Sabbath. The same bizarre song titles with barely an explanation can be found here, except now we benefit from an actual full set of lyrics and a whopping three (!) riffs on High Command (those lyrics don't clear much up, though).
Imagine 10 1990 (or Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars) more closely resembling traditional music. On Pentastar we find repetitive heavy metal riffs (when there is guitar to be found) and the occasional extended guitar lead. But I dare say that even this is more repetitive than their drone efforts at times: Sonar and Depth Charge consists almost entirely of two piano chords struck one after another for seven minutes (sounds like a great track to fall asleep to, by the way). Nonetheless, the more "traditional" songs in combination with the traditional Earth spirit make the whole thing that much more enjoyable.
Favorites: Tallahassee, Coda Maestoso in F (Flat) Minor, Sonar and Depth Charge