You can’t help but feel sorry for that poor guitar.
The painstakingly polished acoustic six-string in Earth’s instrument rack must have done some hard travelling to get here, but chances of it seeing any active duty tonight are slim to none. There simply is no room in the world of this veteran Washington State outfit for gentle strumming and campfire vibes; in fact, you can just about imagine the guitars neck snapping if it ever tried to make itself heard over the trio’s monolithic churn.
It’s debatable whether Earth would classify as Metal; the bikers-from-Hades appearance and stern body language of guitarist, bandleader and sole original member Dylan Carlson and bassist Don McGreevy say yes. The minimalist song structures (more recent material nods towards folk song structures, alongside Earth’s well-established fondness for glacially moving, ultra-heavy drones) and penchant for all-instrumental improvisation – jazz-metal, perhaps – tend to disagree. However, they certainly are heavy – Heavy, in fact.
In the studio, Earth have widened their palette in recent years; last year’s much-acclaimed Primitive and Deadly even marked a first in the band’s 25-year journey by featuring singers (you do end up missing Mark Lanegan’s doomy oration during tonight’s instrumental airing of ‘There Is A Serpent Coming’), but there’s no let-up in the all-consuming heaviness tonight. Next to the traditional cod-satanic posturing of metal, it’s refreshing to come across music that genuinely sounds desolate enough to soundtrack the arrival of a herd of apocalyptic beasts. “It’s good to be back North,” Carlson states at one stage after a salute to the charms of the Brudenell, and tonight’s stormy weather conditions prove a suitable companion to the seriously dense slabs of sound Earth dedicate their 90 minutes on stage to: it’s hard to imagine these stark sounds prospering in sunlight.
Tonight really is all about axe action. It’s not the typical lightning speed showing-off of individual technical excellence, however; Carlson’s stabs at anything that could possibly be described as a solo rarely last more than a few brief moments. Instead, old and new material alike are turned into one extended ritual in worship of the Riff, a procession in which letting go of any thickly textured riff until it has been milked dry is strictly prohibited. In theory, it sounds like tedium on tap, but Earth manage to conjure some hypnotic majesty from the relentless repetition. What might initially seem like nuance-free sludge turns out to pack subtle dynamics and minimalist variations, as the bass shadows Carlson’s guitar every step of the way, adding to the foreboding rumbling of the low end, whilst long-term drummer Adrienne Davies bashes her kit in slow motion to keep the funereal beat, like a video playing on half speed or someone drumming in a room filled with syrup.
It’s perhaps unreasonable to complain about being served a generous portion. But with little variation to deviate from the riff-centred formula, it could be argued that the set reaches its logical conclusion as Carlson lifts up his guitar like a fuzz-coated sacrifice to an angry deity at the end of the almost preposterously heavy, so-slow-it’s-barely-moving ‘Ouroboros Is Broken’ off 1991’s debut Extra-Capsular Extraction, the sole nod towards Earth’s history prior to 2008’s scorched The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull. Next to this pulverising workout, the set’s final stages can’t help but seem a bit lightweight – or as lightweight as Earth is ever likely to get.
Gig date: February 22