Earth is a great steaming magnetic blob of melted iron with a delicate gravy skin of cooled dirt atop the inconceivable heat. Earth, by contrast, is hollow at its core: crumbling, dark, clouded with grime, withered and abscessed like the golden arm of Dylan Carlson. It chugs along through dead space, unchanging and directionless, an existential ride to nowhere. Piles of filthy newspapers gather in the corner like dead leaves after a rainstorm. The sky outside is gray and the clouds don’t seem to move at all. The air is dead and cold — not biting, not even brisk. The vacuum stands still and rebukes you for disturbing it.
The riff from “Introduction” takes up 5x∞ bars before an organ enters and the song grinds to a halt. Only marginally does it change, over five minutes, in inflection and slight intensity. The drums do not rock. They feel like periodic slumps, as though the emaciated drummer attempted to lift his sticks on each beat and failed, letting them fall against the skins.
“High Command” is marginally more digestible. Its groove and vocals help it maintain the appearance of life; the subject matter is, of course, scoring drugs. The fact that Carlson’s fellow junkies are characterized as Nazis lets us know he’s aware of the danger he’s in, but so far he has done nothing to stop the chain of events. The song dies on a gallows, kicking a little as it crosses the threshold. It is one of my favorites from the album.
Did I mention the key changes between songs? “Introduction” is in E; “High Command” falls to D; “Crooked Axis for String Quartet” (with four guitars — a literal, if not actual string quartet) theoretically brings things back up a step, but since track 2 emphasized the D on the A string, a seventh above the starting note of “Crooked Axis”, it helps the third song appear much deeper and more plaintive than its predecessor. “Crooked Axis” is entirely different from the first two pieces: a fuzzed bottom E string vibrates drearily in the background, a growl that gives soulful weight to a pair of fluttering, gorgeously sad guitars that dance in the upper register. The high frets of a bass gurgle periodically with a few funereal notes, and then the song ends on the original drone.
“Tallahassee”‘s groove is more secretive, what with the muted high notes. Carlson, a noted car enthusiast, shot an appropriately mysterious music video for the track, replete with red Plymouth and dudes cruising under a cloud-lit sky. Fun fact: the guy has never held a driver’s license.
(Fucking shit! I promised I wouldn’t do another track-by-track review.
Oh well.) The final song on the first side (the record can be had for like fifteen dollars on Amazon), “Charioteer,” treads along classically with that rhythm whose name I can’t remember, the one that sounds like nothing at all, which pops up in all kinds of orchestral stuff. The line, too, is more than pentatonic, but highly repetitive and so simple you’ll hum it all day for no reason.
The second half begins with a rip and a roar, as the guitars tear into Jimi Hendrix’s “Peace in Mississippi” and are dragged back to Earth (pardon me) by the plodding, sub-?uestlove-simple drums. As a guitar solos aimlessly, the rhythm changes as marginally as that of “Introduction.” The song is little more than an extended rock jam, but satisfying as all hell for people who like that kind of thing, myself included. It stops on a dime and
immediately a deep and pleasing piano chord falls into the atmosphere, the sound one expects a motion-capture water droplet to make upon splashing into a pool. At this point, my entire body goes limp, like the first time I heard Steve Roden’s “Airria (Hanging Gardens)“; my neck muscles give way and I slump back against the chair in which I sit.
The entirety of “Sonar and Depth Charge” consists of a pair of extended chords sounding off against one another. No other instruments appear; every time I listen to it I half expect John Coltrane to pop up after the first four bars, and every time I am irrationally disappointed. At first the piece, like all of Earth’s music, is deceptively simple, but it doesn’t even sound like a song so much as a sketch, a demo. It’s not even in time. The pedals creak constantly, and the sound is so murky that no respectable studio would have put its name on such a recording. Several listens later it sinks in: this is not regular music. Tap your foot to the spacing of the first two chords, and you will discover that the song has a rhythm; Carlson is simply avoiding it, playing the off beats like a jazz pianist. (This took me a long time to realize, so be aware that I’m sharing hard-won knowledge.) “Sonar and Depth Charge,” in all its majesty, is not wholly unique in the Earth catalogue, but its mood is not as despondent; there is no fuzz or distortion to deflect the listener from inspecting his innermost self. Like those paintings of a single ragged line down the otherwise blank canvas, the song gives a man permission to cry, dredging up his strongest suppressed sadness with its occasional stabs and liberating internal spaces.
Repaired and cleansed, I can now stare down the theme from “Introduction,” reprised in “Coda Maestoso in F-Flat Minor” (a little music-theory joke). The central riff is backed by tremolo guitar now, and rumbles along as before for three minutes or so before the organ enters in a brilliant swell and Sean McElligot spins out a air-worthy guitar solo. (For a guy with such a spindly tone, he can certainly make it scream.) We have heard one two other solos on the entire album, both decent but not inspiring; here he pulls out all the stops and rips the song to shreds, shrieking in triumph. Man has won — Man has stood his ground — Death is cheated, and inspires no more terror. Of course he will eventually overtake us, but we don’t have to make it easy on him.
What Brad Torreano of Allmusic doesn’t seem to understand is that these are the goods, these numb, melancholy abstracts portraying their numb, melancholy maker. I grimly suspect that Dylan Carlson’s stock would have gone up a million percent if he died of an overdose immediately after recording Pentastar. He and his fluctuating band remain one of the Nineties’ best groups because they didn’t romanticize the life of a junkie, like the music press so often does for those poor drug-addled schmucks who end up frothing spit, spasming in the doorway of a condemned building. “Drugs were part of his inspiration!” Obviously. Look at what they forced Carlson to make. He recognized that there was no gain in dying early or sacrificing himself — all those heroin deaths are nothing more and nothing less than a terrible loss. Instead, like Flipper, he celebrated life on side 2, recognizing the latent darkness and then refuting it with a brilliant climax. Fuck music, the music is incidental. The man is what counts.