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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Indeed, Maximum Volume Does Yield Maximum Results

posted by on March 11 at 21:38 PM


The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull
(Southern Lord)

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.

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You know he's the guy that helped Kurt buy the shotgun, right?

Posted by Jethro | March 11, 2008 10:23 PM

Long after Nirvana have been forgotten, people will be listening to Earth records with religious fervor.

Posted by future cougar lover | March 11, 2008 11:01 PM

they got pretty literal with that album cover.

Posted by greg | March 12, 2008 12:14 AM

I generally have a hard time reading and listening to music at the same time, but Earth is great music to read by. The combination of reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and listening to Hex is cinematic.

Also, this is an interesting idea that deserves more thought:

...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.

Also, @1, Dylan Carlson's history (as with any artist) makes his transformation over the years that much more interesting.

A very enjoyable review, thank you.

A very enjoyable review, thank you.

Posted by Strath | March 12, 2008 7:14 AM

oops... not THAT enjoyable, I meant to say that just once.

Posted by Strath | March 12, 2008 7:16 AM

Brian, this is some of the best music writing I've read in a while. It's personal, passionate + compelling, exactly all the right things about fanboydom with none of the obnoxiousness. You should feel really proud of this one.

On another note, as a cursory Earth fan at best, I'm now really looking forward to hearing this record.

Posted by Captain Underpants | March 12, 2008 9:09 AM

Thanks for a great review. I have yet to listen to this album, but I will definitely check it out. I loved your point about checking it out on more than computer speakers. With more and more recordings being listened to on subpar equipment sometimes the nuances of a recording can be lost. I'm glad to hear you gave it a second chance.

Posted by drheavy | March 12, 2008 10:06 AM

"Played by humans" definitely explains a lot of the appeal of older recordings. I'd add "recorded on analog" and "played on an old-timey hi-fi and not some tiny piece of plastic" to that list, too.

Indeed, well written. I'll have to check this one out.

Posted by flamingbanjo | March 12, 2008 10:39 AM

What happened to people listening to records (CDs, whatever) on stereos (hi-fis if you will) with nice speakers? I would think a music reviewer (or any music fan, which Brian Cook obviously is) would give the music they love the respect it deserves by listening to it on a capable "system".

I'm not trying to be too critical, I mostly think it's sad. A kick ass set of speakers pays for itself time & time again because music sounds so much better coming through them than on a computer speaker or most any headphone that a mortal would use.

The review is well written & I agree that the new Earth record is a good one, but if you're serious about music get serious about music!

Posted by andré lewis | March 12, 2008 2:54 PM

i agree. unfortunately, less and less of my time is spent at home. so my playing device choices typically wind up being the iPod, the laptop, or the van stereo with blown speakers. certainly not the best options. sad but true.

on a side note, i've often wondered what analog/vinyl purists like Steve Albini do when they go on tour. do they pack a record player in the van? or do they lower themselves to actually playing inferior CDs, eighth inch cassette tapes, or mp3s?

Posted by brian cook | March 12, 2008 3:56 PM

Brian - good question and great review. In Albini's case, I think it helps that he almost never tours.

Posted by Jon | March 12, 2008 4:46 PM

A lineout post that doesn't revere the fleet foxes, band of horses, grand archives, my morning jacket, modest mouse et al. .
Thank you

Posted by Biggie J | March 12, 2008 8:23 PM

Great review Brian, and I agree that this record is phenomenal. I've also been listening to it a lot on my walks/skates to and from work, and it really is perfect for slowly walking down by the water.

Posted by bunnypuncher | March 13, 2008 3:04 AM

Brian (@10),

Yeah, I totally hear you with the situation of not being at home to listen to stuff on a good system. I definitely rock the ipod on a daily basis... can't have my hi-fi on the bus. Also, it's not as accepted to sit and listen to music as it is to, say, sit and watch TV so it can be harder to do that anyway.

On Albini: I'd hope he's playing cassettes in the van. On the two weeks out of every 5 years that they tour.

Again, thanks for the review! Made me put the record on a couple more times & I'm digging it all the more.

Posted by andré lewis | March 13, 2008 9:03 AM

at earth's last show in town {w/ sunn0)))} i bummed a smoke from dylan carlson on the sidewalk outside el corazon after his set. after a few minutes, kim thayil walked up and made small talk. it was like my whole adolescence was giving me a free blowjob. i too am a nerd...

Posted by a series of tubes | March 13, 2008 9:12 AM

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