The general public made Dylan Carlson's acquaintance via his appearance in Nick Bloomfield's 1998 muckraking Kurt Cobain documentary, Kurt & Courtney. Then in the throes of addiction to heroin and speed, Carlson bordered on incoherent as he talked about his best friend's death. He was as riddled with sores as the biblical Job. For Nirvana fans specifically, Carlson remains infamous for purchasing the shotgun Cobain later used on himself. But most music fans know Carlson from his hallowed band, Earth.
From the start, Earth has basically been Carlson and whoever else is close at hand, be it Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon, Thrones' Joe Preston, or Cobain himself. Ostensibly a tribute to Black Sabbath (taking that band's original moniker) and the Melvins (still Seattle's most viscous black sludge export), Earth pioneered a strain of glacier-quick metal dubbed “doom drone.” Carlson oozed out Earth's 1993 debut, Earth 2, while stoned on downers. On the strength of that release, the band made inroads into avant-garde guitar music circles while also offering a heavy metal blueprint that continues to pay dividends in the 21st century via devout followers like Sunn O))), Boris, and Corrupted.
“It was flattering; it was strange,” Carlson says now of the attention given to his groundbreaking debut. “It metamorphosed into this legendary thing. [But] that stuff is part of a historical process that you don't really have any control of.”
Another thing he didn't have control over was his addictions. After Cobain's death, Carlson spiraled into the chemical tar pits, and Earth's recorded output fluctuated wildly with uneven mid-'90s follow-ups like Phase 3: Dominions and Thrones and Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. From 1996 until 2003, Earth fell silent, save for some salvaged live tapes that minded the gap.
Carlson finally turned things around by kicking smack and becoming reacquainted with now-girlfriend Adrienne Davis in 2000 after meeting her a decade before. While Davis began drumming with Carlson, it still wasn't apparent that he would continue Earth. “I wasn't sure if I was going to do music again,” he drawls from his home in Washington. “[But] I looked back on what I really enjoyed in life, and one of the things was just practicing and playing at home.”
Fans came knocking soon enough, though, including minimal-metal label Southern Lord, run by Greg Anderson, who also plays in the modern monks of Earth's slow-go aesthetic, Sunn O))). Anderson and bandmate Stephen O'Malley named their band after Carlson's preferred brand of amp; one of its early demos was named “Dylan Carlson” in homage. Anderson offered his idol a chance to release music on his imprint at his own speed. While early efforts like Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword and Hex struggled with that newly sober voice, this year's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull suggests a new era for Earth. Carlson is grateful for the second chance: “A lot of people vanish,” he says. “And when they come back, no one gives a shit. You have to be a nostalgia act.”
Carlson's newfound lyricism shimmers on The Bees. Distortion and drone have evaporated altogether; instead, the timbre of pensive piano chords, simmering ride cymbals, and snaking guitar lines (some courtesy of iconoclastic jazz player Bill Frisell) create expansive, slow-blooming overtones. “Rise to Glory” glimmers like a classic Jesus Lizard dirge before snake-charming up to a redemptive finale. Pianist Steve Moore's right-handed run (or, rather, crawl) makes “Hung from the Moon” resonate. Spaghetti Western dust, as if blown by Ennio Morricone and Tony Iommi, courses through “Engine of Ruin” and the title track.
Now Carlson emphasizes the light over the dark: “As I learn more about music, I hopefully become a better person,” he says, his voice seared from years of abuse. “And the music is growing and changing along with me.” Much like that lion carcass of the title, even a dead Earth can regenerate.