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Surface Of The Earth
Surface Of The Earth (Utech Records Reissue) Joseph Burnett , August 16th, 2011 12:15

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In a recent, and excellent, article in The Quietus, Brad Sanders analysed the subtle move, artistically and atmospherically, of Black Metal away from the snow-dampened forests and dark rural landscapes that characterised it in the early nineties, and into a sound more redolent of cramped and claustrophobic urban spaces. It’s a compelling analysis, and it shows that even genres as monolithic as the more extreme forms of metal can evolve and cover new ground.

But if this evolution has crept into metal in the last decade, I’d argue - not as a contradiction of Brad's piece, but rather as an extension of the consideration of the varying of atmospheres in modern music between the rural and the urban - that it has been happening in drone music for even longer and with, to my mind, more exciting and varied results.

Not that it's a fair comparison, of course, given the gradual development of drone, from ancient tribal music (Tibet, Scotland) to the seemingly most-loved of all the underground genres. But, throughout its evolution through the 60s experimental scene to the halcyon days of kosmische German music, it retained, bar the occasional left-field experimentation of guys like Tony Conrad and John Cale, either a decidedly pastoral vibe, or something more 'tantric', designed to elevate the listener to new fields of consciousness; even in the hands of masters such as LaMonte Young, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Cluster and Popol Vuh. There was a sense that drone music could connect modern listeners either to their less cluttered past, or to something even greater and more spiritual.

But the darkly urban strains of Conrad and Cale never went away, especially as the latter took his approach to The Velvet Underground, therefore striking a still-unending chord in the psyche of music-lovers across the globe. And this less airy use of drone would resonate most powerfully in the industrial punk of the late seventies and early eighties, through the clanking, clanging sounds of Throbbing Gristle, Maurizio Bianchi and SPK, and never truly went away. Drone, like rock, changed in that period, and suddenly the cosmos, lost rural civilisations and Eastern rites were no longer the main focus of drone artists. Instead, the encroaching, pervasive, claustrophobic atmosphere of mankind's effortlessly dominant cityscapes had taken in root in the minds of many drone musicians and composers, never to leave again.

Which brings us to 1999. By now, Phill Niblock, Nurse With Wound, William Basinski, Windy and Carl, The Dead C and others had brought drone into the latter half of industrialised (indeed, post-industrialised) 20th century culture. But, to my mind, few albums captured this better than Surface Of The Earth's self-titled second album. It's just a shame that, apparently, no-one was listening at the time.

Because Surface Of The Earth, for me, represents the apex of the urbanisation of drone. At its core, this is a guitar album: two or three electric guitars, fucked-up and fucked-around-with until they are barely more than noise generators, spitting feedback into the ether to dance listlessly with an even less coherent synth rumble. But out of this barely-palpable mess come weird and arresting sounds: the smash of metal upon metal, unholy crackles and seething sub-frequencies. It's as if a hundred machines and power plants are collapsing into your ears. This is, to somewhat join the dots with Brad Sanders' article, the point where drone (re-)connects with metal, as the whole of Surface of the Earth creeps out of the speakers like the kind of unsettling and beautiful murk you get on a Khanate album.

But it is intrinsically, unrelentingly, urban. No flighty dreams of lost gods and opened consciousnesses here. The music of Surface of the Earth is tight, nocturnal and oppressive, as if, as a listener, you've suddenly woken up on top of a ruined skyscraper, in a crumbling city at the end of time, and all around you buildings, railroads and monuments are crashing into a seething pit of nothingness. On the two longest pieces, 'Causer Gird' and 'Voyager', this almost paradoxically hits such levels of terrifying beauty that, in the manner of Radigue's best works, you might allow yourself to feel elated, transported even, as if on some tantric trip. Then a saturated blast of distorted guitar hits you, and you're plunged back into that ailing city at the end of anything meaningful. It's not often that music can make you feel like the world is ending. Surface Of The Earth is one of those delicious moments.

Perhaps this is because it never allows itself to become detached from human existence in the way that, to be honest, a lot of 'urban drone' (and, whilst I'm at it, Black Metal) does these days. Maybe that's because it was recorded in a wooden community hall in Wellington, NZ, on two lowly microphones and a cassette deck. Whatever the case, Surface Of The Earth is a painfully humane album. Yes, it's deeply oppressive and relentlessly dark, but pay attention and sudden, aching blasts of emotion will emerge, like fleeting bolts of sunlight piercing a cloud-covered sky. On 'Voyager' a warm synth line bubbles into the mix, fighting fitfully against the crumbling wall of melancholic distortion and noise. On the luminous closing track, 'Sea of Japan', one of the guitarists embarks on a mournful solo, one that wouldn't be out of place on a Slowdive or Jefre Cantu-Ledesma album, full of pathos and despair, but also resolutely urban, as if a lone figure is miserably saluting the end of the world with a guitar from atop the roof of one of those crumbling buildings.

I'm not sure of Surface Of The Earth really got noticed by many people beyond the (amazing) New Zealand scene of its birth, that also includes the Dead C and Gate (whom, I might add, have surely incorporated many of the strengths of this album). But even if it didn't, we can be grateful to Utech Records for rescuing it from the abyss and, hopefully, reinstating it as one of the most important albums to ever drag the subterranean vibe of unending drone into the stifling, weirdly beautiful vista of urban decay.

Rooksby
Aug 19, 2011 11:00am

"It's just a shame that, apparently, no-one was listening at the time" - don't flatter yourselves, Quietus - I still have my original Corpus Hermeticum CD copy of this, & I know I'm not the only one. SOTE's stuff was readily available in the UK at the time - c/o the same distros that stocked all the early Dead C (& related) releases - & I think SOTE might even have played over here as a result (citation required, etc)? But, yes, "ahead of it's time" & all that...

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Joseph Burnett
Oct 4, 2011 10:44pm

In reply to Rooksby:

Rooksby - I would venture, having written the above review, that it's a figure of speech. That was certainly the intent, apologies if it wasn't clear.
Of course someone was listening, or Utech wouldn't have deemed it worthy of re-releasing - indeed, they wouldn't even have been aware of SOTE, were my words to be taken literally. I simply wanted to emphasize that, whilst a lot of noise and drone was getting a lot of column inches, even in 1999, and The Dead C were already something of a cult/much-loved band, SOTE were, by most people, even "alternative" listeners, overlooked.
More power to you for picking up on their brilliance at the time. I wish I had been so lucky, because, as was my main point, it's a stunning album.

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Joseph Burnett
Oct 11, 2011 6:10pm

To add to this review, I included a track from this album, the immense "Causer Gird", in the latest edition of my radio show: http://samurai.fm/meakusma/meakusma-presents-noise-in-the-ether-5.

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