Album Indeed, Maximum Volume Does Yield Maximum Results
posted by March 11 at 21:38 PMon
The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull
As excited as I was for its release, I’ve hesitated to talk about Earth’s new album, The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull. I bought it the day after it came out and listened to it repeatedly over the course of the last two weeks. The band’s previous endeavor, last year’s Hibernaculum, was easily my favorite record of 2007. My expectations for the follow-up were high. But something about Bees wasn’t quite resonating with me.
Truth be told, I had never been the biggest fan of Earth’s early work. Prior to their hiatus from 1997 to 2005, Earth-mastermind Dylan Carlson summoned some of the heaviest and most exhausting dirges to emanate from the Northwest. Even the first half of the Melvin’s Lysol seems accessible by comparison. My appreciation of the sheer excess of their revered second album, Earth 2, doesn’t quite compensate for my short attention span when it comes to the nearly complete lack of sonic dynamics on the recording. I often find myself playing it on my headphones on long flights or car trips for the sole purpose of putting me to sleep. Its soothing monotone manages to cancel out nearly all outside sound.
But the hiatus changed the equation. Starting with 2005’s Hex (Or Printing In The Infernal Method), their fifth studio full-length, Carlson replaced the overdriven metal guitar with shimmering full-bodied clean tones. Rather than drenching everything with distortion, Carlson colored his sustained guitar notes with tremolo, reverb. delay, and a variety of other effects to create a varied sonic pallet. Eschewing the metal aesthetic for a sound closer to the soundtracks of old spaghetti westerns or heavy drug-use montages, the new approach evoked a dark and sinister twist on Americana. Two years later, Hibernaculum showcased three older Earth songs revisited using the new twangy template. While still rife with doom in the realm of melody, the songs suddenly took on a more dramatic depth. Minute variations surfaced with each new pass at a riff. The album closer, A Plague of Angels, clocks in at just over sixteen minutes at roughly 45 beats per minute. The dearth of rhythmic punctuations matches extreme economy of guitar playing. Yet the song never grows boring; there is too much tension in the empty gaps and the sparse arrangement.
Earth’s newer material recalls a conversation I’d had years ago with a local studio engineer/producer. He attested that the long-term appeal of “classic” rock records is at least partially due to the virtually unnoticeable inconsistencies from measure to measure. Tempo fluctuations, notes plucked slightly ahead or behind the beat, tone discrepancies from small changes in musicians’ playing… all these factors keep the subconscious intrigued. The human brain somehow struggles to push the pieces back into place, but the organic nature of the performances defies our inner desire for order. Perhaps this explains why Earth’s dragging tempos and subtle embellishments make their glacial-paced minimalism all the more engaging. While Earth 2 simply lulls me into sleep, Hex and Hibernaculum leave me transfixed. I frequently lie awake at night listening to the records in their entirety. Yes, I am a nerd.
The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull doesn’t stray too far from their post-hiatus formula. The folks at Earth’s label, Southern Lord, joke that Hex was more “southern”, and Bees is more “lord.” The joke is appropriate; Earth have shifted ever so slightly from their bleak and burned-out soundscapes to more triumphant melodies. On a basic compositional level, I found Bees immediately satisfying and appreciated the evolution in sound, but for some reason it just wasn’t hitting me the same way as their other recent work. This morning I finally recognized the error: my choice of playing devices. For the last two weeks I’ve been repeatedly listening to the album on my laptop speakers. But this morning, as I walked across downtown Seattle, I gave Bees another go, this time on my iPod. From the very first note, it all made sense. This is a record too sonically lush, too deftly subtle, and too gorgeously layered to warrant a casual listen. Listening to the record on headphones with Puget Sound shimmering on the horizon and the sound unfolding to reveal all its intricate details and little secrets, I felt the hairs on my arm stand at attention. So my apologies that giving this record a little lip service comes two weeks after its official drop date, but it’s probably better that I kept my opinion to myself prior to giving it a proper listen. Goddamn, it’s one fine record.