The bearded Sir Bishop twiddled his knobs and produced a diddly-diddly-delayed virtuoso display that pulled in flamenco, surf and howling ranty folk, unfortunately (and I mean that, since Sir Richard was founder member of the Sun City Girls whose reputation for being Avant-Garage provocateurs was well deserved) it fell on my deaf ears like half a ton of cold jazz wank played on an expensive guitar. “Don’t worry, you’ll get heavy, there’s plenty of heavy coming later,” he told the restive crowd.
In fairness to Sir Bishop the crowd were restive for a reason. Earth’s Sub-Pop, post recovery, distortion free, juggernaut had rolled into town in support of their latest release The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (Southern Lord) with a Wurlitzer organ (Steve Moore), bass action from Don McGreevy, cymbals and assorted drums from Adrienne Davies and slow, slow, oh so very slow – guitar thrashing from the king of ambient doom country himself, Mr Dylan Carlson – a gruff looking dude with an armful of tattoos and biker chops. A man whose previous prodigious intake of drugs lead to sprawling production schedules and whose main claim to fame rested on being the person who leant Kurt Cobain the shotgun.
Fifteen years ago in some dismal cut-out bin, in a shop called Vinyl Solution, I found a copy of Earth 2 and, seduced by its packaging, the fact that it comprised two transparent discs containing barely four songs with titles like, Teeth of Angels Rule the Divine, I knew this was something special.
Amongst Sub-Pop’s more wayward signings, Earth played a kind of ambient drone metal that at the time barely existed. Slow songs. Elegiac and without words. Cinematic, landscape non-tunes that, if you were so inclined, might remind you of La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine and Glenn Branca as much as their stated inspirations of Sabbath, Slayer and Hendrix. I wanted everything and nearly got it, though their first Sub-Pop release remained elusive. Then, for seven years, there was silence until 2005, when Dylan Carlson returned from his pit of drug induced despair (and a few legal issues) with essentially the same set but without the distortion and with added trombone – their new “Western” sound.
Relaunched by fan band Sunn O))), paying their dues, Earth, previously known to delight (generally bored or abusive) audiences with sets of twenty minute feedback storms, corporeal Mogodon ragas of almost catatonic simplicity and super Z-grade dead-beat Hawkwind stoner anti-riffs delivered at a snail’s pace with military grade volume, had now acquired a weird new dignity, as drone metal demigods of a genre they more or less invented and then seemed more or less forgotten by.
It is clear then how they should emerge from that wall of screech and fuzz and malice and bad, bad vibes �� as a psychedelic country band with a huge debt to Neil Young. Chin stroking rather than head banging music.
It is a very potent and simple formula, four note progressions played with infinite slowness, underpinned by the bass, augmented by cymbal smashes and organ riffs and the occasional trombone solo. A haunted sound.
A little illuminated Padre Pio was the only concession made to a psychedelic lightshow but make no mistake this was a more than slightly psychedelic experience, a kind of ghost country stripped back to the bone, crushing, heavy and full of dread. Lead by Carlson playing a loud but rarely overdriven telecaster.
Kansas barn fires and the protective hexes written by early American settlers inform this bleak sonic landscape but for all its melancholic, lull inducing dreamscape power, the absence of lyric meant the attention wandered and though the crowd were enthusiastic, they were not swept away. This might be why the Melvins have sustained more interest over the years, Stoner Witch seeming to many the superior take on the sludge metal golem blueprint.
The trombone proved an unlikely but effective addition as was the augmentation of the riffs on the electric piano. The performance, though well received, remained measured, at times as if they were jamming amongst themselves. The atmosphere at the Lido was never much more convincing than the wisp of dry ice that polluted the air by the front of the stage. Interaction with the audience was minimal and confined largely to the gnomic titles of the pieces and a brief interlude in which Carlson tuned his guitar.
Whilst impressive, this is still an immense and gloomy sound, the wind howling in the prairie, I couldn’t help wishing they had brought more of the anger and left some of the grandeur at home. The latest Earth incarnation sounded to me stately but a little dull and left me yearning for an encore of Peace in Mississippi, the Hendrix song Carlson covered with such intensity and passion on Pentastar: In the Style of Demons.
The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull is out now on Southern Lord as is a split 12″ with Sir Richard Bishop.