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Primitive And Deadly Danny Riley , September 12th, 2014 11:56

After spending the best part of a decade seemingly pursuing a single idea and a single goal, at a single pace, how does the music of Earth MK II remain so captivating? Ever since guitarist Dylan Carlson revived his drone-metal project as a full band in 2005, its output has worked strictly within self-imposed limitations: precise, economical guitar phrases played at a crawling pace, underpinned by the commendably reserved drumming of Adrienne Davis and sparingly fleshed out with the textures of Carlson's fancy.

I'd argue the answer lies in the Earth model's basic receptiveness to change. From the La Monte Young/Slayer symbiosis of Earth's first incarnation through to the ambient Americana of Hex and the opiate psych-crawl of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull, Carlson has remained adept at reinvigorating his musical constancies through subtle assimilation of influence and the introduction of strong thematic modes with new each release. Primitive And Deadly sees the band arrive at a new stylistic waypoint whilst at the same time displaying a sense of confidence and consolidation not seen since 2008's Bees. The album also sees a marked deviation from the politics of austerity that dominated Earth's sound palette during the Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light series. The tones here are expansive and grungey, swampy and psyched-out, with the guitarist's liberal application distortion making for a much more saturated soundscape. Sonically it's closest to the low-slung rockisms of 1996's Pentastar: In the Style Of Demons, but such comparisons are frivolous: Primitive And Deadly is very much its own beast. 

Instrumental opener 'Torn By The Fox Of The Crescent Moon' is certainly the album's most surprising and invigorating track, setting off at a markedly brisker pace than anything Earth in its second incarnation has released to date and, whilst it certainly contains repeated riffs, it's no spliff-up nod-off drone-out number by any stretch. There's an unsettling, fraught energy here – each repetition seems to bring in a new musical figure and contribute to the feel of drive and thrust, a newfound sense of direction and destination. Whilst the harmonised leads betray Carlson's affection for classic metal, it's also the most filmic Earth have sounded in recent years; a hulking grinder of a piece that could variously soundtrack Apache helicopter flights into Saigon, drawn-out slogs toward the gallows or Miltonian conflicts in the cosmos.

The sense of considered and premeditated composition evident on the album's opener signposts Earth's intent for the whole work – after flirting with improvisation in their recent output, Primitive And Deadly exhibits Earth's new commitment to song. And this commitment is wholehearted - the album is the first to feature singing since Pentastar. It's not always successful however; the first contribution by solo artist, Screaming Trees frontman and Carlson's ex-housemate Mark Lanegan on 'There Is a Serpent Coming' feels like a bit of a mess. The track opens with some pleasantly modal guitar phrases before Lanegan comes in with some freewheeling and rather diffuse vocals, the main trouble being the lack of cohesion between the arrangement and the singing. Over the track's eight minutes Lanegan's mythical-revelatory-bluesman shtick seems to jar somewhat with the song's rather complex arrangement (for Earth, that is), as do the apocalyptic sub-Beat lyrics ("See all the creep and crawling / All the praise and exaltation / Black train arrives at the station" – go home Mark, you've had too much Ayahuasca).

That's not to say the introduction of vocals on this album is a disaster – 'From The Zodiacal Light' largely gets right what Lanegan's first contribution gets wrong. It works altogether better as a song – Earth's tectonic riffage and Rabia Shaheen Qazi's desert-witch vocal complementing each other splendidly until the whole thing arrives at a crashing, cathartic coda. It's also headily evocative, bringing to mind the eye-bending horizons and parched landscapes of Joshua Tree where the initial ideas for the album were conceived. Lanegan's second vocal contribution on album closer 'Rooks Across The Gates' is also a vast improvement on his first. Over a rather less busy, droney arrangement he darkly intones Carlson's folklore-inspired lyrics, making for a hefty honk of Morris-man funeral doom - 'Tam Lin' in an Electric Wizard t-shirt.

On 'Even Hell Has Its Heroesc', the only other instrumental on the album, Carlson and his band allow themselves a bit of a wig-out, and on the whole it's well deserved. Carlson's rather tasty, cocksure shredding (a by-product of his admiration for psychedelicists like Jerry Garcia and John Cipollina, no doubt) is indicative of the overall feeling of resoluteness and confidence Earth display on Primitive And Deadly. Their two most recent albums, though excellent in their own way, seemed like an aesthetic halfway house between Carlson's vision for his band and his extracurricular interests in British folklore and esoterica. Now with these ghosts exorcised by his solo drcarlsonalbion moniker, Primitive And Deadly is imbued with an energy of its own: a bold, if flawed update on the Earth model.