Earth

support Black Spirituals + Don McGreevy & Rogier Smal Duo
author AP date 15/02/15 venue Jazzhouse, Copenhagen, DEN

16 years I’ve lived in Copenhagen, yet this cold and windy Sunday evening marks the first time I set foot at Jazzhouse, which as its name suggests isn’t exactly renowned for hosting rock concerts. Recently however, the venue has begun investing more in that genre, presenting itself as a viable alternative for its more experimental niches, and it is in that capacity that I find myself in these cozy and rather hip confines - to behold the legendary drone metal trio Earth.

All photos courtesy of Philip B. Hansen

Don McGreevy & Rogier Smal Duo

Earth mastermind Dylan Carlson has tapped Don McGreevy to handle bass guitar duties in place of Bill Herzog on this current tour, and part of the package seems to have been the opportunity for McGreevy to also showcase his solo material accompanied by free-percussion drummer Rogier Smal. With McGreevy on (primarily) acoustic guitar and Smal behind the kit, the setup is thus simple enough, yet as strange cascades of dissonant, amplified melody and jazz rhythms begin resonating from the PA, the music seems to be anything but. It sounds to me like a fitting soundtrack for David Lynch’s next anomaly of a film, with little tangible in it to grasp, and I find myself worried if I’ve swallowed too great a mouthful by signing myself up to review this show. The music is a far cry from my usual comfort zone, and I struggle to understand it.

Fortunately, the disarray continues only a little while longer before McGreevy starts introducing a coherent melody graced by elements from prog, folk and even post-rock. Smal continues unabated, putting the full extent of his kit to use (rims, sides, bells - you name it!) in ever stranger, yet persistently impressive percussion patterns that thrive on subtle ingenuity. The set reaches a pinnacle at track three, when McGreevy substitutes his acoustic guitar for an electric Gibson SG and Smal changes his approach to more insistent, and considerably louder drumming. Though the timings remains distinctly jazz inspired (read: odd), this song has more slam to it, sounding like a bizarre, yet comprehensible twist on the post-rock genre - unlike the cacophony of discordant notes and frantic rolls of drumming in the fourth and final track of the evening. What these two gentlemen do is not my thing - it’s too far out and experimentally structured to tickle much more than simple intrigue from me. But there is no denying the instrumental prowess underlying, and if you’re a fan or even simply accustomed to jazz, then there’s probably much more in this stuff for you.

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Black Spirituals

Even less accommodating to my preferences are Black Spirituals, a duo hailing from Oakland, CA whose outset is not unlike Don McGreevy’s: to create highly experimental rock/jazz fusion music with a basic set of tools. Zachary James Watkins is charged with electric guitar & electronic samples, while his compatriot Marshall Trammell handles percussion; but where there was some sense in the disarray before, here the music seems exclusively to consist of a flurry of ambient noise, strange and deafening, overdriven bursts of guitar, and mostly cymbal, snare & tom-based drumming. As little as there is discernible in the melodic aspects of the music, as little does it change during the 30 minutes or so during which Black Spirituals occupy the stage, and while I must offer my admiration for Trammell’s exquisite work on the skins (he is, at times, playing with a combination of palm and sticks for example), there is, for me, a pressing lack of purpose in this stuff. It sounds like forced experimentation for its own sake, with no pattern or structure to the proceedings. Judging by the fact that a large crowd of people look to be unfazed by this, however, it may simply be that this sort of music is beyond my rock coloured comprehension. Subjective as a review is though, I feel I must be honest in my assessment of Black Spirituals and conclude that, at the very least, their music is ill-suited for the live setting.

4

Earth

If you're into the more skewed sub-styles of metal; when Earth comes to town, you go. Founded in 1989, the band’s 1993 debut “Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version” is considered a milestone album in the drone metal genre, and they’re widely regarded as an important influence for well known purveyors of that genre like Boris, Sunn O))) and Swans. Of course, that is only one of the many forms of metal fused into Earth’s sound, with elements of post-rock and -metal, doom and stoner also prominently on display on their long winding, atmospheric tracks - eight of which are on the menu tonight from across the group’s 24 year-spanning discography. After two outlandish support acts it is refreshing, finding Earth to be a… well, more down to earth proposition, with Dylan Carlson’s guitar, Adrienne Davies’ drums, and McGreevy’s bass forming a conventional setup; and the music created with them having clearly defined boundaries.

As the first two are aired (“Badgers Bane” and “Even Hell Has Its Heroes”), it occurs to me how easy it is to become lost in Earth’s universe; the slow, repetitive rhythmic foundation producing an almost ritualistic feel to the proceedings, and the frequent flares of cinematic, Americana- and folk-inspired melody providing anchors for grounding the experience. The trio plays loud, and thankfully the sound engineer on duty has a handle on it, as seldom does such volume co-exist so harmoniously with crispness and clarity as is the case here. This is vital in giving songs like “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” that feel of a soundtrack to some epic periodical drama. And whereas most instrumental acts often prove a one-dimensional experience (especially when the songs are as long as these), Earth are thankfully also a quality live act. Carlson pours his heart and soul into playing his instrument, almost hugging it at times, strumming each chord like it’s the object of his most passionate desires, while McGreevy & Davies look, with each passing song, to become ever more enveloped in the mesmerising sounds.

I’ll be the first to admit that Earth is not everyone’s cup of tea; the tempo remains funereal throughout, and the songs invariably take their jolly time unfolding. But for the patient: slow, beautiful music does not come in much fancier colours than a song like “Ouroboros is Broken” (the first song Earth ever wrote, in 1989) or “From the Zodiacal Light”. Granted, with the total absence of a light production or other visual designs, tonight’s showing does grow a little too repetitive as the minutes clock in and in a sense, once you’ve heard two or three of the tracks, you’ll have developed a fairly well rounded handle on what Earth are all about. There is no changing the underlying formula. But if you’re able to accept this inescapable aspect of the drone metal genre, then Earth is without a doubt a band everyone must see in their lifetime.

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Setlist:

  • 1. Badgers Bane
  • 2. Even Hell Has Its Heroes
  • 3. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
  • 4. There is a Serpent Coming
  • 5. Old Black
  • 6. Ouroboros is Broken
  • 7. Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon
  • 8. From the Zodiacal Light

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