Advice: Get the vinyl version, if you like it. It’s more expensive, and rather hard to find outside the Internet, but the other versions are rather compressed and can make protracted listening a bit of a chore. Plus, there’s a fifteen-minute ambient bonus track that may not have much of a tune, but is good for homework and study. Read on for details.
I have a strange relationship with Earth. I really don’t listen to their material often, and when I do it’s rarely outside a couple of the really good albums. Even so I haven’t listened to Pentastar or Earth 2 or Bees or Primitive and Deadly or Hibernaculum in months or years, though I probably should (if only to reevaluate them), yet I google the band’s name regularly in anticipation of forthcoming albums or tour dates on the West Coast. Earth’s ability to hold my interest, in other words, is in direct inverse proportion to that of their music.
In fact, the only album of theirs I’ve enjoyed recently on a sort of rotational basis is Hex; or, Printing In the Infernal Method, a soundtrackish masterpiece with a Fluxus chamber-music title more appropriate to LaMonte “The Tortoise Recalling The Drone of The Holy Numbers as They Were Revealed in The Dreams of The Whirlwind and The Obsidian Gong and Illuminated by The Sawmill” Young than the country-rock combo that Earth has transformed into. I haven’t played a set this often and for such pleasure since Jack Johnson or Gluey Porch Treatments, and I have pretty much worn those out by now. (Surely the same is gonna happen to Hex, but such is life.) The music herein is inspiring as hell, a windswept droning impressionistic take on spaghetti Western music that has been described in so many other publications, and is so much better in the auditory flesh, that no further adjectives will be bandied about. Suffice to say that this is an album of constantly developing sorta-riffs in the mold of Earth 2 — after hearing it a few dozen times you realize that unlike Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, Hex doesn’t drive most of its motifs into the ground, even if it is repetitive. This, I think, is meant to put the listener in a stupor, a sort of hypnosis by bludgeoning, so that they (the archetypal listener) can be forced to sit and listen through the initial monotony to find the record’s true purpose: conjuring.
No, it’s not an album that intends to be catchy, though many of these riffs will stick in your head; this is actual fucking raga rock, music that has learned at least a little of the lesson present in nauseatingly boring Indian classical crap. It uses the trebly bite of the electric guitar, the most ubiquitous instrument in Anglophone (and probably the world’s) popular music, to narrate in a way that us dum Americans will pay attention to, in a way that the Pandit Pran Naths and other sophisticated non-Western experimentalists probably will not be able to in anyone’s lifetime. It privileges impressions, classical-style, over memorable riffs to feed us back images of the American West that really ought to be used up by now, but still are fascinating.
That leads to another interesting observation: Hex also uses the vocabulary of country music, with its steel guitars, gentle swing and G mixolydian fixation, to paint that “Western” Picture, but it obviously lacks the gloss that mainstream country has for far too long forced on its leading performers. Life is ruff; that’s the big unit-shifting country cliche (one among many). Yet the music of Hex never coats that misfortune, which in Dylan Carlson’s literature of choice gets really brutal, in the Nashville syrup of yesteryear. For that you have to give Earth credit: for hearing the fundamental and bleak country sadness that producers usually wrapped in strings and steel and brushed-ass wimpy fucking drums. Give thanks for their spare and resolute gallows contraption of raga-country music; with God’s blessing that descriptor will not become a tired genre heading, and we can all appreciate Earth’s best album on long drives through Real America as we look out the window and see how impassive and inhospitable the world is, and what it does to human souls in its grip. The individual price of freedom is the non-dependence it implies, folks. And as long as we live in a world where people retreat so radically either from or towards such a condition, we have to understand the allure of total liberty, our own country’s big unit-shifting cliche. Not that an album is gonna help much with that, but it does an excellent job portraying the kind of desolation that comes with leaving humanity behind cowboy-style and striking out on one’s own. Give it a spin and you may see what I mean.
Oh, and my favorite track is “Tethered to the Polestar.” Beautiful song. I played a version on TV once.