When the clouds rolled in to obscure the June sun, and small drops of rain began to break the dense humidity, it felt as if some preternatural force were prepping the stage for my afternoon meeting with Dylan Carlson, mastermind for local doom-drone pioneers Earth. However, the black clouds failed to manifest, and crackling thunder was nowhere within earshot. Rather, the dank air persevered, shards of smoky orange sunlight pierced the gray sky, and all around, the sultry vegetation seemed to heave and exhale with a woozy torpor. Even though we were only in a West Seattle backyard, it felt as if I were transported into the cover photo from the new Earth album, Hibernaculum—a decrepit forest landscape where scraggy tree limbs resemble suffocating veins and the plants appear to decay and bloom at the same time.
Earth With SunnO))), Weedeater, and Wolves in the Throne Room. El Corazon, 109 Eastlake Ave. E., 381-3094, www.elcorazonseattle.com. $13 adv./$15 DOS. 9 p.m. Sat., July 7.
With Hibernaculum, Carlson has taken pieces of the old Earth canon and re-envisioned them, bringing the clean guitar sound that he introduced on 2005's Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method to some of the dronier, stonier Earth tunes of yore. As the new version of "Ourobrosis Is Broken"—originally from Earth's 1991 debut, Extra-Capsular Extraction—ambles forward with crisp Telecaster tones, one can't help but accept the appropriateness behind the Hibernaculum title. The statement is now clear—the lumbering riffage from the past that promulgated the drone-rock movement has been put to rest. The storm of distortion and drone now lies encased by an anesthetizing cocoon that still feels sludgy and sinister, but in completely new ways.
We convene on the grounds of producer Randall Dunn's Aleph Studios, the West Seattle recording space famous for pumping out albums like Altar, last fall's collaborative effort between Earth progenies SunnO))) and Boris. Carlson, drummer Adrienne Davies, bassist Don McGreevy, and Dunn just finished mixing "The Engine of Ruin," their first song for the forthcoming album, The Bee Made Honey in the Lion's Skull, which is tentatively slated for an early 2008 release on Southern Lord.
As I shake hands with Carlson, it's obvious that the gaunt, long-haired addict from Earth's 1997 "Tallahassee" video has been replaced by a stocky man with a steely-eyed gaze and a calm disposition. These days, drugs and alcohol are a forlorn memory, and coffee and cigarettes appear to be de rigueur.
When he left the music business in 1997, after Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, the final Earth release on Sub Pop, Carlson—who almost single-handedly altered the course of underground metal—had no plans to ever return. In and out of rehab, with some jail time mixed in, Earth was a distant memory for him.
After cleaning up around 2000, Carlson says his passion for music found a fresh start. "I was living in Pomona, Calif., and I got out of the last rehab I was in, and this friend of mine bought me a guitar. So that was kind of like when I first started playing guitar again. It really just started with me wanting to play guitar; it didn't start with me wanting to do a band again," he says.
He teamed up with Davies shortly thereafter, and the guitar-drummer duo went on a brusque East Coast tour in the fall of 2002, which catalyzed the incipient stages of the new Earth sound. When Carlson finally returned to the studio in the spring of 2005 to record Hex, he consciously pulled away from distortion and down-tuned riffs to embrace space and resonance. He refocused his interest in drone-based music to comprise other aspects of the guitar sound, such as overtones and harmonics.
"It was sort of like," Carlson starts before pausing for a moment. "Well, obviously I cleaned up and started playing guitar again. Before we were known for this dirty, overdriven type sound, and I was intoxicated all the time. I mean, just getting clean and having a clarity of intellect back, I wanted the guitar sound to reflect that in its clarity."
Carlson also says that much of the change came from his maturation as a guitar player. By sticking to his "method" of applying slow tempos and repetition to his compositions, but now allowing those pure guitar tones to naturally linger and decay on their own, he unearthed a new sonic gravity that was still darker than hell but unlike anything from Earth's previous oeuvre. It was perhaps an appropriate move, then, to pick legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell as a guest artist for this new record.
"When I started back into playing guitar, I picked up an article that he wrote, and it just changed my whole way of looking at the guitar," Carlson states. "I felt that I had sort of reached the end of what you could do with tuning down and droning. But [Frisell's] discussion of harmonics, it really opened me up to a lot more possibilities with the instrument."
When Dunn plays me "The Engine of Ruin," one of three songs off the forthcoming record that feature Frisell, I'm immediately transfixed by what sounds like an even further development in the clean-tone Earth sound. On the left channel, Frisell jams in his trademark crystalline twang, and on the right channel, Carlson keeps pace with his desiccating Telecaster patterns. But the layers of sound enveloping their guitar parts feel much larger and more dynamic than anything off Hex or Hibernaculum. The band as a whole feels more cohesive—Davies' drumming is powerful and decisive, Steve Moore's Wurlitzer is dank and sinister, and McGreevy's bass playing finds a driving, dominant focus. The pace is slow and brooding, just as it was in the early '90s, but the entire Earth aesthetic again feels recast, this time with a hint of chthonic gospel bombast replacing Hex's country-western inflections. It's as if The Bee Made Honey in the Lion's Skull is the soundtrack for Carlson's ultimate redemption.
At this point, we've talked for more than an hour and the cigarette butts are piling up, but all I can think about are those resonating guitar tones that still seem to ring in my ears. Funny thing is, I can't tell if the haunting drone is from the song I just heard or some old Earth tune I listened to in the past.
"I mean, what I do will always have certain elements that are the same, which are slower tempos, reliance on repetition and open strings, or 'the drone' or whatever you want to call it," Carlson states. "I think there's a continuity between what I've done, but I don't understand people who do the same album over and over."