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It might sound callous, but it seems that whenever Earth founder and guitarist Dylan Carlson kicked his smack habits, he also swore off the fuzz pedal. 2005's "Hex: or printing in the infernal method" saw the distorted drone of "Earth 2" reduced to a minor role in Carlson's sonic evocations, the claustrophobia and darkness of previous incarnations, if not banished, then certainly reduced to elements of a greater whole. "Hex..." found Carlson exploring the rich history of the electric guitar in American music, folding the pioneering twang of Duane Eddy, Link Wray and Ry Cooder into the brooding style which at first seemed a departure from previous form but which maintained clear links with the amp-smashing drone of landmarks like “Earth 2” and “Pentastar: in the style of demons”. Although the overall feel of “Hex...” was ominous, Carlson found himself able to let some light in, at least entertain the idea of hope.
But if the grim rumble of “Hex...” was intermittently lit by bright bursts of redemptive luminosity, on this release those beams are refracted and spread diffusely. With the exception of opening dirge “Omens and potents I: the driver” these seven tracks are closer to being actual songs than anything Carlson has previously put his name to, retaining the characteristically sluggish pace but augmenting the loping, circular riffs with sharp melodies and enlivened dynamics. Today they are more approachable, less foreboding than before, but no less weighty in terms of ambition and effect. “Miami morning coming down II (shine)” in particular conjectures an artist with an assured grasp of his own creative trajectory; this beautifully paced and emotionally involving piece may in fact constitute the peak of Carlson’s career to date.
The stylistic updates of classic material offered by last year’s “Hibernaculum” made it clear that he has no intention of returning to the willfully monotonous doom-drone of his formative years. Nowadays Earth’s conception of heaviness is rather more involved; they make music for adults such as themselves, people who fuck, fall in love, make mistakes, harbor regrets, risk their lives of something they didn’t even realize they wanted and now cannot be without. Fittingly “The bees...” is suffused with the kind of warmth that can only be derived from the involvement of chief architects Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies in a relationship that runs deeper than traditional bandmate bonhomie. And, like “Hex...”, this album’s evocation of unspoiled landscape can be interpreted as shorthand for the exhilaration and trepidation experienced when offering oneself up to something bigger, be that love, religious belief or faith in humanity. These seven compositions are devotionals, wordless spiritual-psychedelic gospel songs from the frontier of the human heart and as such as they are derived from drone, rock, metal and blues sources, they are truly worth of the term “soul music”.
This is going to sound really melodramatic, but I think Dylan Carlson's story is absolutely inspirational. His life, up to this point, is essentially the story of a great man. The story of a young man with a vision (Earth 2), taking his ideas forward (Phase 3 and Pentastar), and then coming across a hardship (the drugs, suicide of Kurt Cobain and admission that he had a problem). Then, after his rehabilitation, his story took a high note, as he began to redeem himself, with not only a new record with a new vision, but taking on many a metalhead's dream- starting a band with your wife. That's the kind of stuff that great literature is made of.
Speaking of high notes and redemption, The Bees Made Honey In The Lions Skull (which, by the way, will be further referred to as "Bees") is arguably Earth's magnum opus. While Earth 2 was often considered to be the best, I always viewed it as a foundation of a genre- good, and pretty much groundbreaking, but would eventually be bettered by others. The student beats the master and all that. I always found Bees to be a lot better, since it holds the groundbreaking territory that Earth 2 had (albeit in a completely different way, aurally) while also manages to sound quite familiar. For example, it sounds a lot like Hex, Hibernaculum, Neil Young's soundtrack to the 1995 Johnny Depp film, Dead Man and the work of various country musicians. Basically taking something already great and making it even better.
I mean that in many ways. Production. Technique. Songwriting. Tone. Texture. Right down to the packaging, this beats anything they've done previously. For example, Hex introduced a whole new look and sound. It was successful, and it was explored further in Hibernaculum, albeit with a few new touches like trumpets and pianos. In Bees, said trumpet and piano gets a lot more use. Heck, the piano is pretty much the main instrument in Engine of Ruin, since it plays all the way through the track, and it's Carlson's guitar that takes a back seat.
There's something else I've noticed about this album, as well. It's upbeat. Looking back to the mugshot-like photographs on the back of their first EP, Extra-Capsular Extraction, and its opressive atmosphere, this is the complete opposite. The liner notes show pictures of the members in vibrant colours, smiling. Whilst looking a little older, and 'heavier', Dylan definitely seems happy. And it comes across in the music. For example, the title track ends in a blistering major-scale cadence, and, while not a single word has been spoken on this album, it makes you want to do something. It's like an inspirational ending from a movie. Now, I'm not sure what Earth are classed as, in terms of genre today, but if it's still "drone doom", this is probably the least "doom" album I've ever heard in that genre.
While I can understand this sounds quite daunting to someone who's into the genre as I am, I have to emphasise that this album simply HAS to be heard. Even if you didn't like Hex that much, this is a leaps-and-bounds improvement over that. I loved that album so damn much, but after listening to this a number of times, I can't help but feel it's too blank. The drum/guitar/bell instruments sound lost, whereas on Bees, the instruments all pack together and almost sort of meld and fuse together. Hard to explain, but it gives it a more warm and cosy atmosphere.
Like I said, this is definitely the band's high-point, but I just hope it isn't "...and they all lived happily ever after" this soon.
Talk about an album review long in the works. "The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull" was conceivably the first 2008-released album I heard this year and by God it was one heck of an introduction to 2008. After getting many listens in the few months following it's release back in February it had gradually gathered dust until it seemed time to again indulge myself in the warm, lush tones that comprise the 7 scores on this here, Earth's 6th studio album since formation back in 1990. Earth's history is unique, and highly interesting. Did you know they are regarded as the pioneers of the drone/doom genre, ya' know, the genre where time stands still and the music takes on a lifeforce of it's own? Did you know Kurt Cobain was an admirer of the band, even submitting vocals on a few early tracks? Whatever your thoughts on bands like Sunn 0))), their open admission of Earth's influence on their existence is something to behold.
I just love this album. Despite having reviewed Scott Hull's excellent and soothing "Requiem" recently, this is another level of relaxation - 53 minutes of twee simple guitar tones and inspired minimalist drumming processed by a mind in bandleader Dylan Carlson able to pick out those sounds that initiate intense bouts of dreaminess and mind-transferral in the listener. Twangy country guitar licks set upon on a glacially slow beat, guitars that appear from the outer extremities of your conscious before disappearing back into the ether; "The Bees..." is capable of turning your mind inside out and upside down. Picking out individual moments of greatness is difficult for this release wants to be known as a single entity, the provision of one large, blank canvas of purely instrumental work allowing the listener to make up his own mind about what the song should mean to him rather than being told through lyric. Save for the quintessentially stunning "Light of Day, Day of Darkness" (Green Carnation), you'll struggle to find an album that paints with such a vivid palette of depth and feeling, moods and colours; to do so without any lyrics is testament to Earth's ability to transpose human emotion into thought-provoking music.
One could argue the existence of noticable similarity between tracks on "The Bees...", a point not without it's evidence, but to flag such a 'fault' is to not understand the reasoning behind such a record. Album opener "Omens And Portents I: The Driver" is perhaps the most trippy of the lot, featuring the greatest level of feedback on the LP as the guitars weave a hypnotic path of increasing dramatisation until the song concludes as if the droned-out amps can't take any more. "Rise To Glory" could be viewed as a song to gently bring you into the new day as it caresses your ears with the piano/guitar interplay to be found in a number of other songs too. If you like music to take you on ride of smooth relaxation, "Engine of Ruin", feeling totally devoid of pressure should do the job for you. The themes of others exist, however who am I to tell you what thoughts to have about them, that’s your job.
You can bet "The Bees..." will float by before you've even noticed the passing of time and find itself a moment in your life, an event or action, that it will cling to and become the soundtrack of. Me, I thought I'd had that moment months ago now but after a lengthy break to find it still generates new thoughts in me was an unexpected bonus. For those with an interest in unusual music, and prepared to devote time to listen to something most would dismiss as 'boring' , "The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull" is here to take your mind for a walk while your body has a rest. Enjoy.
Originally written for Rockfreaks.net
I heard of Earth first when I was a kid, just into doom metal and looking around on the internet to find new bands to listen to. Too bad things were quite primitive back then, I'd only read about this band and their unique approach to music. Napster didn't help and I just had to have them in my to-check-out list for the next few years. Then it was 2005 and thanks to Dylan Clarkson reforming the band and (by then the coolest thing called) torrents, I got to listen their latest album and caught up with their early albums too.
While the early albums defined what's now called drone-doom, this (then) new album called Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method saw them creating something completely new. With guitars almost completely clean with heavy reverb and echo effects, slow and heavily syncopated drums and also a keyboardist, Earth churned out some phenomenal western/country flavoured doom rock that was ethereal, miminal, crawling and epic. Riffs would lingeron for a really long time while the build-ups slowly happen in a truly hypnotic manner. Earth then went on to release Hibernaculum in 2007, one of my favourite releases of the year, which was mostly a collection of songs from their early period reworked in their current western style.
If these two marvelous albums weren't enough as an alternative soundtrack to some poetic Sergio Leone moments, Earth in 2008 release their latest one called The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull. The band take their whole idea one step further this time around though. While songwriting has evolved and hypnotic melodies flow like never before, the main change is the fact that there's a complete layer of soundscape added here that just takes things to a totally new level for the listener. Like on Hex, songs are up to the 9 minute mark with at the most two or three movements to speak of on each. Those highly syncopated slow pounding drums still haunts the listener and the spacey keyboard creates the atmosphere of a climatic battle between Harmonica and Frank as good as Morricone managed to. And that's no easy feat. Like all the good minimalistic music, the fun occurs when rich harmonic textures and slight tonal variations are added as the song progresses and these guys are absolutely at the top of their game here.
Bill Frisell makes a guest appearance on three tracks and adds his own flavour to the already well-crafted music. You get lots of harmonics, noisy noodling that somehow gels with what's happening in the riff underneath and some contrapuntal moments. The album closes with the title song and the tanpura ringing. This is probably the only occasion where the arrangements get lush and moderately loud with heavy synths, arpeggios and some near traditional overdriven guitar lines. As far as I'm concerned, this one is way more than a keeper.
Originally written for http://www.kvltsite.com
Earth, taking their name from the original moniker of British heavy metal creators Black Sabbath, is largely credited with pioneering the drone/doom genre in the early nineties, largely influencing drone extraordinaires like Sunn O))). Despite the instrumental band’s consistent slew of quality country/drone/metal hybrids, founding member, guitarist and songwriter Dylan Carlson is most widely known as the late Kurt Cobain’s former best friend, who bought the Nirvana guitarist the gun he would later use to kill himself in April, 1994. Although previous Earth records are identified by an impenetrable wall of distortion and dirge-like melodies – à la “Coda Maestoso in F(Flat) Minor” and “Raiford (The Felon Wind)” – their latest work, “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull,” takes the band’s southern-influenced drone into an uncharted territory, which some are calling “post-country.”
Though the dense atmospherics of previous Earth releases are omnipresent on “Bees…,” gone are the ear-wrenching distortion and funereal guitar lines. Of course, Earth’s latest is as oppressively slow as ever. That being said, this time around Carlson has opted for clear, bright, and even shimmering guitar tones, giving this set of songs a particularly elusive dynamic. The magic of “Bees…” is the contrasting relationship between the depressive tempos and odd major/minor melodies and the rich twang of Carlson’s guitar and lustrous keyboard accents. “Rise to Glory” is one such song. The song builds, deconstructs, and rebuilds itself time and time again, thereby creating the listener’s hopeful illusion that a climax will eventually be reached, relieving the burdensome tension. Though, like Sisyphus, Carlson never quite gets there. Then why listen? Because the experience is well worth it – there is not a passing moment that doesn’t bring with it some form of emotion, whether it be excitement, melancholy, anticipation, or disappointment. It seems strange that any listener would want to be disappointed by a song, but while poppy hooks and cheesy melodies are instantly gratifying, the experience is empty. Each song on “Bees…” is a veritable journey.
It may be hard to comprehend how an instrumental record, based on repetitive, deathly slow, and often dark passages, can remain interesting throughout. However, “Bees…” is expertly executed. With every passing phrase, some nuance, often undetected by passive listening, is added. Thus, despite the cyclic nature of Earth’s droning compositions, a progression is achieved. The best example of this musical paradox on “Bees…” is “Hung from the Moon,” a single motif looped dozens of times over. The song breathes, sighs, laughs, cries, and smiles as any human would , as its off-kilter melodies are both beautiful and joyous, sinister and unsettling. The ostensibly simple construction is revealed to be much more complex and diverse.
Once again, the genius of Earth’s latest work is the network of juxtapositions. Dense, clear; oppressive, exhilarating; repetitive, progressive; simple, complex; one-dimensional, dynamic. This perpetual battle between good and evil is most obviously represented by the album’s title, “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull.” Out of death, decay, and sorrow comes life, fruitfulness, and joy. Such is the nature of Earth’s latest release: slow, stubborn, frustrating, hope-smashing, and never boring.
For this album Earth has expanded to a four-piece band with the addition of a bassist and a keyboardist plus on three tracks there is a guest guitarist. The music featured here is a refinement of the ambient doom metal that appeared on "Hex: or Printing in the Infernal method": on that album, the monotony and repetitive nature of Earth's particular style of doom metal and its no-frills production described a long-gone world where life was tough and the people in that world were self-reliant, hard-bitten and taciturn. On this follow-up we have more song-like tracks with actual melodies and apparent influences from country and gospel music to describe in what to me seems a more general and less context-based way the world of heartland America again. No time period here is referred to so the music could just as easily be referring to the present day as to the past and maybe there is a warning for what may happen in the future. The emphasis is clearly on religion, specifically Old Testament-style Christianity of an American Gothic sort that Australian singer, musician and one-time novelist Nick Cave might recognise.
All the songs are very slow with a clean and sometimes blues-tinged guitar tone and a repetitive melody which in the second track "Rise to Glory" seems incomplete and stuttering. As though a crowd of people has been roused from its spiritual slumber and is now ready to fight the good fight but has no real idea apart from the message received in the opening track as to how to go about vanquishing evil. A widescreen spacious atmosphere exists across all songs thanks to minimal production and a deliberate economy of playing from all musicians especially Adrienne Davies whose drumming is spare indeed. A hot desert heat hangs over "Engine of Ruin" thanks to drawn-out guitar chords that wail and hang in the air. We may imagine the people, filled with holy righteousness, venturing out into the wilderness to do God's work after receiving inspiration by the emphatic guitar sermon and rich piano / organ accompaniment on "Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine)".
The last three tracks are perhaps the really important ones: their mood is dark and complex, the melodies include many changes in key with an emphasis on minor keys and there is a strong feeling that something's not right with the crowd in the wilderness. "Hung From the Moon" features strong bluesy chords and very dark piano playing and the melodies have a funereal emphatic quality. The track's atmosphere is very interior / introverted and reminds me of some of the mid-to-late 1970's American singer / songwriter introspective music (I'm thinking of Steely Dan, I don't know this act very well but their music was quite popular in Australia at that time) just before the onslaught of punk: the mood has a thick pain and I have the impression that a sacrifice, most likely in the form of a lynching, takes place. The outro track which is also the title track is an elegy, half-sad, half-celebratory, and the title of the song along with the piano trilling and radiant guitar tones suggest some kind of punishment has taken place in an off-screen kind of way (as in movies where one scene cuts to another in such a way that the really relevant action has taken place away from the audience's eyes and all we find out about it is in the aftermath), God's proper order has been restored and something or someone has been redeemed.
If you are not familiar with the history of religious movements in the United States and the importance of Old Testament-style Christianity in the lives of many Americans even today, you may find this album hard to understand and be at a loss as to why the music does what it does. I must admit the first few times I heard this album the music didn't seem all that original and I felt there was more in it that was not being expressed which should have been. Plus the slowness can make it seem boring and lazy. Once I worked out what Earth was up to on this album and found the drama within, the music made more sense and so on future listenings I'll probably get more enjoyment out of it than I did initially. The album may not be challenging in the way early Earth albums were and from my vantage point it looks like Earth is moving into a grey zone between improvised minimalism and and a more structured song-based approach. I do not expect that the line-up of musicians who appeared on this album will necessarily appear on the next but who knows?
I have given my own interpretation of the story behind the music but many interpretations of the drama can be read into it; I can see there can be a parable about self-deluded leaders and messiahs or a group of people under some messianic complex in the music which could put a whole new meaning to the outro track. If you are one of those people who were fully absorbed by the early albums and you find this album occupies only half your brain (the right-hand side maybe), immerse the other half in some literature like Nick Cave's novel "And the Ass saw the Angel" or US journalist Joe Bageant's commentary on the US working class "Deer Hunting with Jesus" and you will get some idea of what Earth are hinting at with this recording.
Dylan Carlson and friends sure don't make their records easy-listening.
Are my ears "blindfolded"? Have I eaten Shroomies instead of the regular breakfast? Cause I cannot understand trace of the critics that got this album to a shameful 32% average rating. I get it that Earth isn't the band from Earth 2 anymore, and I get it that spaghetti Western music isn't their ace up the sleeve, but it is a very good album anyway, even if it cannot be qualified as proper metal music.
For those seeking doom-laden excursions, the thing most similar to the approach exhibited here would be Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore, otherwise a non-metal band. The Bees'... sound comes rather close to the ethereal nature of Bohren's melodies, more than Hex. Everything flows effortlessly, and things such wah-wah abuse and Western-infected melodies doesn't seem to justify in great degree why this album shouldn't be considered as a winner.
I'm not a country fan, and I'm not fond of Western soundtracks neither. But this is so much more than a plain Western soundtrack! And it's got Bill Frisell! No one from those who have heard of that titan of the avant-garde would be surprised by Earth's stylings on this album. The guitar's tone is pristine and surreal, though some might call it artifficial (and Bill Frisell is a force not to be ignored!). This album is, just like Keith Rowe would say, a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. Because it feels at first like a very "pragmatic" sort of music, only to dematerialize itself through its repetition, as if the entire cycle of life has been reduced to scenes so few and disparate, and so fluid and grandiose nonetheless.
On the other hand, I'll have to admit that in some moments, Earth sound dangerously close to a commercially sticky post-rock band, and their riffs might get generic sounding, just like the "chorus" riff in Rise To Glory. The angst on this album doesn't even come close to the angst found on past releases, and I guess this has been a disappointment for hardcore Earth fans. Another factor that bothered me was the addition of the acoustic piano, which drains from the beautiful aridity of the guitar tone and adds to the commercial note. The drums have a punchy sound, they are pushed to the forefront, but they complement the melodies very well.
In the end, I advise everyone who has been scared by the ridiculously low ratings: there are persons who would like it and persons who didn't. Everybody has the right to his/her own opinion, except when it comes to very, very shitty acts. But acts like Earth allow for more perspectives to appear. So give it a try, or even more than one.
Southern Lord is fast becoming a support group for wash-outs, cash-ins and bands looking for fat profit margins. Sorry, but it's true. Earth's most recent album is one of the worst offenders in all respects. "On past glories" is a phrase usually levelled at once-great bands who now produce tired rehashes, but it works just as well when applied to once-mediocre bands who now record total abortions.
While their first few albums were never mind-blowing, they had at least some experimental pretensions to their name. They are rightly credited for innovations in the field of "drone doom" too. The fact that this genre is largely pointless should not count against them in any way.
There comes a time though, when a band with meagre talent is unable to sustain itself under the guise of abstract invention any longer, and people begin to ask for actual songs. At this point, the band has a few options. They can carry on as they were and become their own self-parodying tribute act. They can forge ahead with entirely new ideas and inventions, rejuvenating their whole sound. Or they can cave in and struggle through a few half-hearted attempts at melody. Guess which one Earth have plumped for in 2008?
(There is also a hidden fourth option as well: pack up your guitarand give the world a much needed break from your ego-flexing. But who does that in the real world?)
The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull is a monument to all that is banal. Giving an hour to listen to this disc fully without distractions is quite honestly a painful experience. It starts with a bland and disappointing welcome - something like turning up to a house party and discovering that the house belongs to The Waltons - and it never picks up. Why the twanging faux country melodies? Why the atmosphere of a doctor's waiting room? Are they deliberately trying to annoy me?
At around twenty minutes in, you will feel the first itch of the creeping tedium that is this album. At 40 minutes, your defence mechanisms kick in, and your brain will find it impossible to actually focus on the soulless pastel soundscapes for more than a few seconds at a time. This is muzak with a Teflon coating; it is so profoundly dull that your attention is going to literally slip off it.
The track list claims there are seven songs on this album. It's hard to tell really. Some tracks have an organ line that breaks up the tedium, others don't and suffer greatly for its absence. Track 5, (I think it is, at least) has a little more impetus in the percussion but still manages to meander about for 8 minutes before stopping right back where it started. In fact, the only tracks with any discernable characteristics are numbers 3, 4 and 5. A more cynical man might suggest that they were put in the middle of the album to break up the boredom, but I am not that petty.
Sorry, but even if (like me) you never thought Earth were particularly good, you had to concede that they were attempting something different. This just sounds like the background music from the travel channel though. This is jizz.
In various other earth reviews I've stated that these guys seem to do their best when they get really, ridiculously slow and hypnotic. Whether it was the never-ending one note drone of 'Like Gold and Faceted', the deep, low horns of 'The Dry Lake', and the endless, seductive jam that was 'Ouroboros is Broken' (from Hibernaculum), Earth seem to succeed when they drop any attempts at writing actual songs and just drop endless, brain numbing jams that you can trance too.
Unfortunately, it seems that Earth have not discovered that for themselves yet. This album doesn't really qualify as drone, instead, focusing on slow and extremely boring country tunes.
Yep, slow, quite boring country jams seem to be the main style of operation here. 'Omens and Portents 1', the opening track, begins with a fairly interesting atmosphere before it all ends up in some pointless wah pedal abuse. Almos monotonal in it's approach, with various semi-country leads flying around, it's a pretty bad experience that just doesn't really achieve anything.
The opening track isn't the only track that brings with it lots of head scratching and some sort of 'what the hell were they thinking?' deal. 'Rise to Glory' has some sudden stops throughout the track that, if we're being honest, suck balls- the songs are quiet and gentle enough as they are, thus making the stops completely unnecessary, and while the gentle psychedelia running through the middle of the track is certainly very nice - indeed, there's many short but brilliant nuggets of gentle, flowing psychedelia throughout this album- the overall effect is one of mind numbing boredom.
And on it goes. It seems that just when Earth manage to establish some sort of excellent jam/riff/soundscape thing they screw it all up, by changing the riff around, screwing with the dynamics or just country-fying the whole thing until there's nothing worthwhile left. It seems to be particularly bad with all of the shorter songs- Engine of Ruin is another terrible offender, with some decent (and relatively up tempo) country licks being ruined by some fairly boring lead playing. It's worth noting that when Earth get it right, it sounds fantastic- Miami Morning Coming Down II starts off with an excellent, gentle melody, and as the track builds up, a new riff is introduced that actually DOESN'T SUCK! I know, crazy! The end result is a tremendously satisfying track that captures some of those beautiful, desolate atmospheres that HEX and Hibernaculum contained. Excellent stuff. It's followed up by the only other genuinely good track, that being Hung from the Moon, probably the slowest one here, where everything is satisfyingly weighty and dark.
Of course, two songs do not a good album make, and the overall feeling is one of disappointment. Earth, again, fail to realise that they're best at the slow stuff, speeding much of their material up, actually trying to write proper SONGS (how dare they!) and generally just screwing around with an otherwise excellent formula. Unless if you're a country-lovin' dope fiend, you don't really need this.