Seattle guitarist Dylan Carlson talks like the longtime junkie he once was. His sentences decay slowly, the last few words getting steadily quieter and quieter until . . . eventually . . . he's . . . done. But he's been clean for a few years now, and he's ready to refocus on the music that's made him a cult figure for over a decade and arguably the root of an entire subgenre.
1993's Earth 2 is probably the most perverse footnote of the grunge years. A three-song, 73-minute revelation, it sounds like a guy neck-deep in cooling tar trying to play the intro to "War Pigs," eventually giving up and just letting the guitar drone until it stops all by itself. Back in '93, it and its creator were mostly greeted with baffled half-smiles. Lots of people only purchased it, or wrote about it, because of Carlson's friendship with some guy named Kurt Cobain, who screamed on Earth's debut EP, Extra- Capsular Extractions. (A much more troubled Carlson can be seen in Nick Broomfield's film Kurt & Courtney.)
Earth's membership was in constant flux, and the group's last studio album was 1996's Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Their live appearances, always haphazard and erratic, tapered off soon after, and Carlson's drug problems deepened. "It took me a while to get back together and decide I wanted to do music again," he says. "For a long while, I wasn't sure I wanted to keep doing it."
Twelve years after Earth 2, the time seems right. A lot of underground metal has been cast in Earth's image. Bands like Warhorse, Boris, and Khanate have applied Carlson's lessons in patience and feedback to post-Sabbath riffage, releasing some of the most harrowing albums around. Sunn O))), led by Southern Lord label head Greg Anderson, started as an Earth tribute band before moving in an avant-garde direction all their own. "It's nice to know that what you've done has some kind of value beyond the commercial," says Carlson of Earth's impact. "Because obviously, this kind of music, you're not doing it to be on MTV Cribs or anything."
Now, Carlson's back in a big way, releasing three new records on as many labels, with another one coming on Southern Lord in September. Each new Earth CD has its own character. Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword (Megablade/Troubleman Unlimited) contains only two tracks—the 14-minute "Dissolution III," recorded live on WNYC radio in 2002, and the 54-minute title track, a duet taped that same night featuring Carlson's current girlfriend and musical partner, drummer Adrienne Davies. Listening to the whole thing is tough but rewarding, like surviving a very slow rockslide. Legacy of Dissolution (No Quarter) is a remix album, with contributions from Russell Haswell, Jim O'Rourke, Justin Broadrick, Mogwai, Autechre, and Sunn O))). Most of the remixers emphasize drone rather than heaviness, and Autechre's track is barely distinguishable from the original. Carlson's participation was limited to digitizing old master tapes. "There's [a] perception that I picked the people that were on it, and that's not quite the case," he says. "[Label head Mike Quinn] basically told me who was interested, and they all sounded good to me."
070796 Live, on Autofact, is the best of the new Earth releases. It shares "Dissolution III" with Living in the Gleam, but the other three tracks are its biggest selling points anyway. The opening title track is a two-guitar piece featuring Carlson and Ian Nickson, recorded at the Hyperstrings festival in Europe. "Dexamyl" is an 18-minute Carlson/Davies stomp from February 2003; the disc closes with a James Plotkin remix of "070796."
Unfortunately,Autofact owner Josh Hunt had a major falling out with Carlson between Earth's 2003 European tour and the present day. Carlson now says Hunt "went to prison for wire fraud and was just recently paroled, and now it looks like he's going to go back." A U.S. marshal in Alaska confirmed Hunt pleaded guilty to fraud by wire in May 2004 and was sentenced to 12 months, restitution of $35,506, and three years supervised release—from which he is currently missing. "He tried to con his way through life, and unfortunately, we were caught up in that and paid the price," says Carlson.
I tried to get Hunt's side of the story. I really did. Knowing nothing of this dispute, I e-mailed Hunt for a review copy of 070796 Live in March. He replied, "I don't have a working relationship with Earth any longer. After taking them on tour with KK Null in 2003, I had some unrelated legal problems for which I spent a year in federal prison. . . . I've only recently got my label up and running again. . . . I would be more than willing to talk about my label, releases, my legal troubles, etc., to get all of the rumors out of the way and start fresh." A month later, having received and loved the disc, I tried to contact him for the promised interview. But the label's Web site [www.a-fact.com] was no longer accessible, my e-mails to him bounced back, and a letter I sent him went unanswered. (Sunn/Khanate guitarist Stephen O'Malley's Web site, www.ideologic.org, is currently displaying a federal warrant for Hunt's arrest, issued by Oregon U.S. Marshals.)
Rare is the serious music fan with a high horse to climb on regarding the ethics of record-label owners. Who among us has never illegally downloaded a song or a whole album? What music geek worthy of the label has never bought a bootleg? I myself have surreptitiously recorded a live performance (Fushitsusha, Tonic, N.Y.C., 2001, though my pocket-muffled cassette recording is not the one that circulates).
But if Hunt's ethical lapses were so extreme that they opened a rift with the band, should Earth fans support his label by purchasing what's admittedly a really nicely packaged, great sounding, and musically top-shelf release? I don't know. I don't even know if my getting a free copy makes things better or worse.
For his part, Dylan Carlson wants to put the whole thing behind him and focus on Earth's real-deal comeback. "Not to toot my own horn or anything, but the writing's much stronger now than it's ever been," he says. "Everything fits." Southern Lord, a label largely built on Earth's aesthetic, is more than ready to push them out there, too. Maybe their time has come at last. Twelve years isn't too long to wait to see your vision embraced.