Masters of Doom: the band Earth forges a classic in an aged, durable style of heavy metal.
By Milo Miles
It’s beyond unusual for a rock outfit to make a good album 25 years into a career – let alone the finest release they’ve ever done. But Earth has managed to do so with Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord), their seventh full-length studio album since 1989. Referring to Earth in the plural is misleading, however, since almost from the start the operation has amounted to guitarist, singer and keyboardist Dylan Carlson and whoever he decided to take with him into the studio or up on stage. The other constant is Carlson’s obsession with the mode of heavy metal called Doom, which means the world to its generations of passionate followers and nothing to the mass music audience.
No doubt this is because Doom is a form of rock and roll that originated in a very nontraditional rock-and-roll outlook. I would identify the Ground Zero of Doom as “War Pigs,” the lead track on Paranoid by Black Sabbath, which came out in England in 1970. On this as in other matters Doom, I disagree with the purists. They would nominate the earlier song “Black Sabbath” itself as the point of origin. But it sounds too much like a mere horror-movie novelty to me. Besides, “War Pigs” begins with air raid sirens from World War II, the force that shaped Doom and made it a certainty in England and impossible to begin in America. The early-Boomer Brit rockers looked to transatlantic beacons for inspiration: Elvis’s hips, sock hops, cars shaped like chrome-decked palaces. Ozzy Osbourne, born several years later and growing up working-class in the ashes of gritty Birmingham, was motivated to become a musician by the Beatles, but he gravitated toward the rubble, bomb craters and lingering echoes of dark chaos in his surroundings for inspiration. Osbourne and fellow dissident in the shadows Lou Reed seemed to present parallel signals from behind their jet-black shades – “Who Loves the Sun?”
The basic document of Doom arriving in America is First Daze Here Too, a two-disc collection by the Virginia group Pentagram, who were obscure until the ‘80s, but pioneered U.S. Doom in the early ‘70s. One minute they’re doing a stomping, exuberant cover of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” the next they’re grinding out slo-mo Doom like “Die in Your Sleep.” Cementing Doom’s nature as anti-matter rock is its key characteristics: slow as you can go, repetition to the outer limits, riffs that evolve so gradually you cannot notice, zero ballad-feel and a tone not so much morbid or crushed as just plain zonked. Most who considered rock and roll a purveyor of subversive pleasures hated it.
Like it or not, Doom would not go away. If you watch the murky, haze-choked valleys and peaks of the Northwestern US at dawn, it should be no surprise that the style reemerged here in the post-punk years. Primal droners were the Melvins, led by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Roger “Buzz” Osborne (no relation, but you wonder). Idolized by local fan Kurt Cobain since 1983, when he was a runty wanna-be musician. Once again, purists will tout early items like Gluey Porch Treatments, which I hear as unrealized stumbling around, except for the title. My nominated document is 1991’s Bullhead, particularly the lead tune, “Boris” (adopted as a name by Japan’s big-cult Doom-fusionist band).
Buzz was a Doom lightweight, though, compared to Dylan Carlson, who pulled the band Earth together at the end of the ‘80s when he was living in Olympia, WA, and one roommate was that same Cobain. (Carlson is forever branded as the party-buddy who got Kurt interested in guns – Carlson’s father worked for the Department of Defense, what can you say – and the Nirvana number “In Bloom” is an eerie, not-uncritical portrait of the tin-can shooter.)
Once again, the true believers will champion a work only they worship, but in the case of Earth 2 (1993) at least the work is indeed pure: three increasingly abstract oozes distilled from Doom, as long and slow as glaciers and, for me, about as cold — no compromise, no surrender, no fun. My nomination from the first phase of Earth is Pentastar: In the Style of Demons (1996), which has shaped songs, flickers of wit and fantasy, and suggests an update of Doom rather than an endurance test derived from it.
Haven’t mentioned the other primordial inspiration for Doom, which goes all the way back to Ozzy and has a tendency to stretch and distort and distend and deform and deliquesce the sounds played by rock musicians: drrruuuuuuuuuuugggggggggghhhhhhhooooooohhhhhhmmmmmmmyyygggoooooddddduuuggs. Carlson admits kicking the chemicals was a good part of why there were no new non-live Earth recordings from 1997 to 2005. Since then he’s returned with more diverse ambitions for Earth albums, including dollops of prog and psyche and jam band and minimalism and proclaimed affinities for various American-roots forms (though I think you have to take those on faith, since they can’t be much heard). Trouble is, the Earth albums that I probed consisted of multiple death-matches between “Bloody Brash” Reach and “Killer Kong” Grasp and the wrong guy kept winning. Until Primitive and Deadly.
The five cuts on the album are between eight and eleven minutes long, none padded. The lead is an instrumental, “Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon” (?? – I know, lyrics only matter a smatter here – if memorable words were essential to the vitality of Doom, it would have begun and ended with “War Pigs”). Turn this brain-sucker way up and it will erase every other sensory input in the room until it finishes. It takes 25 years of practice at building thrum-and-riff-bombs to make them grow rather than pummel or numb. It’s an enduring pleasure to hear three waves of counter-riffs emerge from the deeps of “Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon.” Yes, it belongs with the honorable extended family of Jimi Hendrix’s “Pali Gap” and Link Wray’s “Rumble.”
Primitive and Deadly includes three vocals, always a fraught undertaking with Earth, since singers can’t find a space in the dense surroundings (including Carlson). Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) tackles “There Is a Serpent Coming” with his own lyrics and the finale, “Rooks Across the Gates” with words by Carlson. Reviews have complained that Lanegan sounds detached, even disengaged (I guess instead of saying “he mailed it in,” you now put it “he’s a download of himself”). I’ll give him credit for putting railroads and concrete outlaw atmospherics into “There Is a Serpent Coming,” but “Rooks Across the Gate” only confirms that even the ultimate Earth album will have to have one track that scrapes along the bottom of the mystic.
Singer Rabia Shabeen Qazi was unknown to me before Primitive and Deadly (her regular gig is with the group Rose Windows, whose one release, The Sun Dogs, marks them as a bunch to watch out for if they refine the raw melodramatics). On her feature “From the Zodiacal Light” she is the first voice to find a way into Earth – this is even Earth made flesh. While Qazi delivers lines like “It’s all over now, the Devil’s got you down” in a husky wail that elevates their impact, it’s clear that an immense longing for long-thwarted human connection has been driving Earth all this time. Like a deep-sea luminescence skittering through many parts of Carlson’s clamor.
When a band that’s disdained or smudges passions and pleasures for decades finally brings them down on you, I guess they’re by definition subversive. Call it rock and roll.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.