Carson and Davies sound warmer and more relaxed than they perhaps ever have.
Ever since rebooting Earth in the mid-2000s, Dylan Carson has radically transformed the project from its pioneering work in drone metal to something closer to post-rock. Heavily indebted to country-western sparseness and the cinematic dissonance of Ennio Morricone, Earth Mk. II has worked with more recognizable song forms than the sort of feedback squalls that shaped Earth 2 while nonetheless proving that Carson’s compositional chops had only expanded in scope. The band’s music has incorporated unique flavors with each new LP, from pastoral folk to soaring psychedelia, but the core of the group’s brittle, evocative reformation sound always rings clear.
That sound is especially prevalent on the group’s latest, Full Upon Her Burning Lips. Returning somewhat to the band’s roots, Carson has reverted to the band’s original duo form for this record, working with longtime drummer Adrienne Davies and casting aside many of the technical effects and flourishes that brought spikes of unexpected flavor to the band’s recent work. Surprisingly, and amusingly, Earth proves that it could strip down even further, and the latest album has a dusty quality unheard in the group’s work since comeback album Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method. But even that album is not a perfect reference point for this one, as Carson and Davies sound warmer and more relaxed than they perhaps ever have. Earth has long been a band devoted to capturing the blissful mood of a slow day, and this may well be their sunniest.
That is not to say, of course, that Earth has abandoned its gifts for gnarled, unpredictable glides. Opener “Datura’s Crimson Veils” lurches out of the gate with a halting riff that scrapes like two pieces of sheet metal lightly rubbing together as Davies sweeps the cymbals for a sun-refracting wash of noise. Minuscule variations gradually permutate the riff in new forms, turning the song not so much into a series of loops but a gently graded spiral that slowly bends slightly out of place to drift off-course. You end up not far from where you started, but nonetheless just enough out of place that when the long reverie snaps it is surprising to see yourself in a different position.
Carson’s guitar is sinewy throughout, elegantly phrased but prone to occasional blurts of rougher chords and fuzzy feedback that Carson, drone master that he is, knows how to capture and reshape into something tuneful. You can hear this innate tension in a track like “Cats on the Briar,” where a reedy guitar pattern constantly resets itself with a moaning chord, or the jagged crunch of “The Colour of Poison” that changes slightly with each tremor of feedback until Carson settles into a loping groove that trades the brittle, arid tone of much of his playing on the album for a doomy descent. “The Mandrake’s Hymn” soars on thermal pockets, the stretched guitar lines floating and trembling as Carson sustains each note. Earth’s post-reunion albums all showcase the subtlety in Carson’s approach, but it’s nonetheless impressive how consistently he continues to find new crevices in his seemingly set sound, to both gamely follow and actively control the unexpected elements that arise from his method.
If anything, though, the album’s true leader is Davies, who is mixed front and center alongside her bandmate and plays an active role in the rippling diversions of the album’s gradual directional shifts. Her cymbal work is especially high in the mix, calling attention to the way that she frequently locks her own percussion into the sedate yet clipped loops that Carson shapes his riffs. On “Descending Belladonna,” Carson’s muscular riff is offset by Davies’s plunking away at a cowbell, not comically so but in a way that gives what might otherwise been one of the heavier numbers a folksy twang. The brief “Maiden’s Catalafque” is more or less a showcase for her sparse but guiding approach, with Carson largely relegating his licks to the margins of the mix to leave her jittery snare and cymbal loops to dominate the track, highlighting the pastoral grace of her playing, as well as the slightly rougher, more metallic impulse embedded within it.
Both players outdo themselves on album centerpiece “She Rides an Air of Malevolence.” If the album broadly contains all of the elements of Earth’s Mk II phase (the doom of Primitive and Deadly, western/folk elements of Hex and Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, the shimmering post-rock of The Bees Made Honey in a Lion’s Skull), this epic condenses that breadth into one undulating, serpentine composition. Carson’s riff is meaty and aggressive, albeit phrased with sunbaked ease that reorients what could have been pure doom into something more lilting. All the while, Davies plays loosely, drifting ever so slightly with her beat to give the track an oscillating sense of motion. For an album of such restraint, Full Upon Her Burning Lips often gives the impression of the duo not knowing where each track would go once they started, and that sense of the unknown pervades this track. At once gentle and nervy, the song is Earth at their best, post-rock that cares less for emotional swells or pseudo-classical prowess and instead crafts insoluble, contradictory moods that relax as much as they unsettle.