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Ehnahre’s experiment “Old Earth” is a triumphant display of tension. Through pulling, stretching, and withholding, the band makes quiet musical anticipations as exhilarating and satisfying as the discordant swirls of notes they precede. “Old Earth” is, in a way, an extreme metal version of flirtation. Despite this, the mood ranges from gloomy to furious (unsurprising given that the lyrics are adapted from Samuel Beckett’s work of the same name). This music is like watching video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse on continuous loop, and having the video reverse at the time of collapse. The band expertly builds on ominous melodic sways that naturally feed on themselves to transform into absolutely cataclysmic chaos, which in turn just as naturally subside back into worrisome sways. Even with all of “Old Earth’s” fluctuations, the album is a cohesive statement. In the 38-odd minutes divided into four songs, nearly every note feels necessary.
Variation is an extremely delicate quality in music. Too much of it and you end up with a forgettable mush of notes and too little and you end up with boring repetition - either extreme is bad. Here, the chaotic variation is balanced out by the band’s orderly use of leitmotif. Rather than using pure and bland repetition, the band uses similar shorts phrases and sometimes the same note pattern in different ways and contexts. This clever approach simultaneously creates both variation and coherence. One typical example of this remarkable songwriting happens in “Old Earth II,” where at around 2:25 the double bass plays a very distinctive figure with a large melodic jump (a major seventh) used twice. Later in the song at around 7:30 this melody very quietly repeats, but with a regular bass and with the guitar replacing the low note from the melodic jump. This kind of repetition with changes in both instrumentation and pitch is the subtle kind of song-crafting that makes this release so cohesive yet dynamic. To point out what may not be glaringly obvious, this particular melodic pattern was distinctive enough to be recognizable five minutes later even when the band wasn’t being blunt about using it. “Old Earth” has many fragments like this that interweave to connect the album together, thin cables holding up and releasing a 2,000 meter long bridge.
I almost can not believe it; despite the masterful attention to detail, the sense of cohesion, and even premeditation, “Old Earth” paradoxically sounds so natural that it feels like the band sat down and improvised the entire album in one sitting. However, this is not a jam session where everyone takes turns in the spotlight while the rest of the band does predictable stuff that is easy to play over. Instead, Ehnahre is not a band with multiple members, but a single organism that just happens to occupy the bodies of different people. Even when making unexpected changes, the interactions are so fluid and natural that it is difficult to think of the band members as individuals rather than simply Ehnahre. A very clear and jarring exception to this however is the trumpet section in the later part of “Old Earth II.” These trumpets are discordant, but in a way that is not part of the band’s hive-mind. The session musicians’ parts do not have the same fluid timing sense or even sit as well in the mix. While not at all bad, the trumpets notable for straying from the excellence elsewhere on the album. The only other part of the album that specifically falters is how the otherwise stellar percussion takes a random stroll towards the end of the double bass section on “Old Earth II.” While someone was probably getting creative with brushes on the snare, that person may as well have been struggling to open up a snack bag. For a fair amount of time this is a little bit distracting, like a person thumbing some plastic food wrapper during a movie. Again, this isn’t overly bad, but it sticks out from the album’s overall excellence.
Given the overall unity, listening to this album is a non-interruptible endeavor. While the track separations are not arbitrary, they are also unneeded because the album contains many climaxes and thematic changes. The first song “Old Earth I” demonstrates this with the first real notes of the album ringing out almost four minutes in. Even with such a long wait, the quiet humming, radio noises, and background sounds are useful. This buildup makes the first soft clean notes on the increasingly fuzzy electric guitar more powerful and heavier than what most bands can do with walls of distortion - and then the walls of distortion repeatedly come and go! One facet of the repeated build-ups is how each band member has strong control over their volume. A wonderful contrast, given how dynamically flat so much music is. Even the harsh vocals range from raspy squeaks, to shouts, to guttural howls, all while maintaing a sense of raw power.
While the double bass is not a typical instrument for metal, here it melds with the music perfectly. Ryan McGuire masterfully uses the instrument’s range to the fullest effect, and the bass notes help to hold the music together. This happens elsewhere on the album with bass notes; the bass guitar uses its even rhythm as a strong glue to reign in wandering notes like a tall shepherd corralling sheep simply by walking. In tandem with this, the guitar often acts more like an instrumental wanderer. While this paints an excellent picture of emptiness and disarray, it also makes the band tread fairly close to randomness, yet without ever crossing that line. Sparse and quiet parts of the album come the closest to this feeling - the entropy death of the universe, instead of lonely atoms slowing down Ehnahre has notes that are so sparse that it is almost hard for them to have chemistry with one another. But, “Old Earth’s” dark matter-esque cohesion holds the album together.
Finally, take special note of the final track because “Old Earth IV” starts off with the album’s highest climix, which is made all the more energetic by its somber context. The astringent howling vocals here are unforgettable and supported by a rich swirl of tremolo picked guitars. Somehow this section feels so alien yet unfailingly memorable that it will disabuse listeners of the idea that music must be trite or poppy to be catchy. As elsewhere, this section smoothly transitions, but here it ultimately ends with a somber call and response section peppered with ultra-low notes and intertwined with drums meticulously winding down the energy levels to silence. A perfect end to a brilliant album.
Originally written for Contaminated Tones.
Ehnahre are new to me but this trio from Boston, Massachusetts, has been active since 2008 when they released their debut full-length album. These guys play an unstructured and doom-influenced style of death metal that is very close to heavy improv jazz. "Old Earth" is the group's third album and is based on a short essay by 20th century Irish avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett whose corpus of literary work and drama is usually summarised as bleak and tragicomic. The album consists of one piece broken up into four tracks or movements and by that structure derives as much of its inspiration from forms of classical and chamber music, in which works are sometimes composed and played in four distinct movements, as it does from jazz, doom, hardcore and death metal. Guest musicians include trumpet players Greg Kelley (who I'm familiar with from other recordings) and Forbes Graham, and the ever-trusty eminence grise studio engineer and sometime musician James Plotkin turns up on mastering duties. The guys sometimes come across as sounding a bit like Japan's slow-burning doomsters Corrupted mixed in with some of their more extreme jazz / improv / metal brethren like Boredoms, Fushitsusha and Ruins.
At just over 37 minutes in length, "Old Earth" is best heard in one sitting for the music as a whole to be appreciated. After a warm-up introduction which includes something that sounds like a distant radio recording of a singer followed by a forlorn piano melody, the threesome play some very quiet guitar and noodle about for some time. At the half-way point, the track finally explodes into some fiery spitfire jazz death metal explosions separated by passages of sulky guitar meditations. Haggard death metal vocal yells out lyrics based on the Beckett text while bass guitar surges forward on long booming drone, drums keep busy on fast rhythms and guitars either follow the bass guitar.
The second movement is a mood piece that privileges a chamber music style with the use of double bass as a solo instrument in parts. The clear production on this track underlines the decision to play the track as a more acoustic piece. With the solo double bass followed by solo electric guitar, the track appears rather disjointed and the momentum built up by the first movement is lost. Late in the track, Kelley and Graham join in on trumpets but their performance is very subsidiary to the lead guitar and listeners could query whether the guest musicians were really needed at all.
Doomy death metal credibility is regained in the third movement but at this point I wonder why Ehnahre risked doing a long second piece that took away all the energy and aggression of the first movement only to have to claw it all back in the third. After all, by the time we reach Track 3, we are two-thirds of the way through the album. After a short, edgy piece marked by stealthy rhythm, the fourth movement comes as a dive into an existential inferno with the main vocalist screaming in torment.
This is an interesting album but the music is very uneven: the first two movements are long, each well over ten minutes, while the last two pieces fit entirely into the running-time of Track 1. One'd normally expect the third movement to be very important because in a four-movement work, the third must build on the efforts of the previous two movements in intensity and tension to a gut-wrenching climax; the fourth movement deals with the climax itself, the consequences that follow and then just tidy up all the loose ends and clean up the mess on the floor and walls. We don't get anything of the sort here on "Old Earth". The flow of tension and energy across the album is uneven: the first movement did well in building up that tension but the second track lost it. This meant that the third track has the unenviable job of performing its traditional function plus pick up that tension and conflict in the space of five minutes! This won't do, my friends - and "Old Earth" ends up being a lesser album than it could have been. If you listen to the album straight out without picking it to pieces (as admittedly I've done here for review purposes), you'll notice there is not one God-Almighty tension-releasing pyrotechnics display anywhere here: the recording is more or less low-key throughout. Your listening experience will be an intriguing one at times but it'll also be frustrating.
As a metal album, "Old Earth" certainly proves there's plenty of life in doom and death metal when they come into contact with avant-garde jazz. It's a bit of a shame though that Ehnahre are a bit too enamoured with the idea of playing with the structure of the music to upset expectations of how music builds up to a climax and then comes down, and somewhere in the middle lets go of some tension before climbing up again. Sometimes there are things you just should not deconstruct just for the hell of it, even with unstructured and out-there music.