Sounding the paradox: Earth

Attending an Earth gig is often an unsatisfying experience. Forced to endure something which is almost, but not quite, metal, just about, but not entirely listenable, and only partially memorable, it frustrates and annoys.

For the metaller swaying before me half a beat too quickly, willing the rhythm forward, Earth’s plainly too slow: Dylan Carlson’s riffs sluggishly stagger forward, shoved on by a bassline and occasionally propped up by erratic drumming. Recalling the order of riffs and movements which comprise one of their tracks is almost impossible (the beginning was so many unremarkable notes ago), yet they haven’t entirely disposed of the form and, in spite of the pace, you yearn to constitute a coherent, sequential tune.

Slow, then, but not as slow as Sunn o))) (famously formed as an Earth ‘tribute act’), whose notes are each held longer and riffs played slower than those of their predecessors, conjuring vast expansive soundscapes, transporting their audience from this dark, sweaty basement to that Hyperborean waste. Sunn o))) are louder too, this teleportation facilitated by enveloping the listener in cascading distortion. Earth’s sound, on the other hand, while sometimes punctuated with blissful audio feedback and occasionally noisy, is never quite loud enough to usher in any kind of transcendence.

Slow, but not slow enough, loud but not loud enough – classic Earth tropes, we might suggest, but lately Carlson and co have even begun to challenge our expectations of what should constitute Earth itself. The incorporation of blues, folk, country and jazz influences confounds attempts to (re)establish a homogeneous Earth sound: the English folk inflection of recent tracks like “His Teeth Did Brightly Shine” (2011), for instance, produces a sound more akin to the work of a stoned Martin Carthy (who may have listened to too much early Earth) than the turgid doom-drone of archetypal Earth tracks like “High Command” (1996). Earth, it seems, but not Earth enough.

Lightly suspended between our expectations of volume, rhythm, music, infuriatingly confounding all of them, sits Earth, intractable yet mobile, satisfyingly unsatisfying: this is the sound of paradox, and using it to contest and subvert an audience’s normative desires taps a longstanding vein of the American cultural imagination. Henry David Thoreau’s work, for instance, is replete with paradoxical assertions (your mansion is a box for dying, not living; a Harvard education impedes, not facilitates knowledge) which attempt to subvert his reader’s conservative beliefs and alter their perception of the world, by dislocating one meaning with the intrusion of another. Perhaps listening to Earth then, like reading Thoreau’s Walden, demands that we confront the insidous reality of our normative expectations (in this case: of metal, of music, of artistic experience, of Earth) and ward off the calcification of our own meaning-making processes.

UPDATE: Check out Axe & Arrow’s recent Earth-inspired post “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light”

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~ by schoolboyerrors on March 22, 2012.

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