Hey, hey! New column alert! ‘Bloc Metal’ will be Blocland’s recurring column covering the happenings in extreme music and rounding up all of the releases we believe to be worth your time and admiration. We’ll be talking everything from black metal to power electronics, hardcore to noise, and anything that may be considered “hard on the ears”.
Looking Back: Earth’s The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull at Ten
Earth only registered on my radar with their phoenix-like return to music that was 2005’s comeback album Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method. It was a simple case of being drawn in by the stunning album cover, a sepia toned photograph of a prairie barn dating from around 150 years ago. There was something so stark about that image. The barn’s imposing bulk, the brutally bisecting horizon line, it was pregnant with a faintly ominous quality. At this point I knew nothing about the band but I simply had to hear what the music sounded like. When I got to drop the needle I was poleaxed. I don’t know what I expected but it absolutely wasn’t slow motion, ghostly, arid instrumental rock that invoked the spirit of Cormac McCarthy. Despite being well versed in the slower pace of doom metal, most bands in the genre cloaked their sound with distortion and propelled it with a relatively strident rhythm. With Earth I found I had to recalibrate my notions of tempo. This wasn’t even a walk, it was an amble, with frequent pauses to take in the scenery. As I listened puzzlement slowly gave way to fascination before blossoming into deep, all consuming love.
By all accounts no-one had expected Earth to ever return. Things had gone very quiet following 1996’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Band founder and driving creative force Dylan Carlson seemed thoroughly adrift between twin pillars of tragic circumstance and self-destruction. With its engine rendered inoperable Earth simply ceased to be. But I don’t want to dwell on what is surely a dark time in the musician’s life. I am simply glad he managed to conqueror, or at least placate his demons, and re-orientate himself towards music once again.
Hex surprised long time Earth fans not only by its sheer existence, but also in the stunning left turn it took musically when compared to earlier releases. In what has now become the recognised narrative, each Earth album has its own distinctive flavour with Dylan using it as a framework to explore his prevailing creative interest of the time, musical and philosophical, all via the medium of sloooow rock music. And this really is his natural mode of expression, having mentioned in interview that, despite occasional efforts to the contrary, his music always ends up being pulled back to a slower cadence.
It would be pushing it to say Earth’s music is timeless, featuring as it does the prominent use of electric guitar and, touching upon musical influences from the 1960s through to the 1990s, but it certainly does sit outside of any predominant trends. Whilst numerous bands have sprouted in the wake of Earth’s genre defining 1993 debut Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version where Dylan effectively created the template for doom metal as a form of ambient music, I don’t hear very many artists who’s sound is directly shaped by Earth’s second phase. There will always be those individuals who clamour for a return to the early days but Dylan’s inspirations clearly now lie elsewhere, and I for one do not want to hear Earth 2 endlessly facsimiled by its creator. Now it would be somewhat churlish of me to suggest that Sunn O))) did exactly that, but what started out on their part as simple fandom has since spun into an incredibly rewarding series of variations and shades – variations which I sincerely doubt Dylan himself would have come up with. Can you see him producing something like Black One? Anyway, with Sunn O))) continuing to pile on the drone and distortion, Dylan is liberated to steer his music in whichever direction he chooses, from the spectre of Ennio Morricone to bone dry country, from the proto heavy metal of the Scorpions to the folk of Fairport Convention.
So how does The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull stand up 10 years later? In a word, effortlessly. It’s like a pair of beautifully crafted worn leather boots that have softened to fit the foot of the wearer perfectly. Of all Earth’s post reactivation albums it is certainly their warmest and, to my mind, one of their most dense. In fact it‘s almost a direct riposte to the oft expressed notion that Earth’s music is exclusively minimal. Yes, the songs are still constructed using relatively bare bone riffs and lean purposefully into repetition, nevertheless tonally and texturally there’s a wealth of detail on display here. There seems to be some 70’s jazz and gospel influences at play and make no mistake there is also still the skeleton of doom, however stripped largely of any metallic influence this often has the effect of delivering periods of reflection rather conjuring any sombre atmosphere.
On this release, Dylan once again proves he’s a master of playing around a riff, adding subtle nuances or changes of emphasis that gently shift form. The whole sound just unfurls in a beautifully languid fashion like coils of smoke. Second track “Rise to Glory” features a stunning solo. The guitar seemingly fractures over the top of rhythmic measured piano stabs before coalescing into an elemental and uplifting series of droning notes. The effect is akin to seeing the suns rays burst through a departing storm cloud, sweeping across the land in a blaze of glory as colours are invigorated and the landscape leaps into jewel-like sharp relief.
Dylan thrives with collaborators and in that respect The Bees Made Honey… is no exception. Percussionist Adrianne Davis has been a constant and valued companion throughout Earth’s second phase and once again her drumming is as stately and wonderfully controlled as ever, striking the perfect balance between motion and poise. Avoiding over playing, there’s absolutely no unnecessary drum fills on here, she also endows the rhythms with a certain swinging grace.
Steve Moore who takes on Hammond, Wurlitzer and grand piano duties seems to instinctively know just when to accentuate Dylan’s guitar, providing either a hazy, droning bed for the riffs or accentuating guitar notes in what amounts to the sonic equivalent of light trails captured on a night time photograph taken with a slow shutter speed. In one of my favourite moments on the album, at the mid point of “Hung from the Moon” Steve takes centre stage and lets rip, albeit quietly, with a near freeform piano solo which clashes beautifully against the distinguished rhythm of the track. It’s a pure waves against rocks moment although one within the context of Earth’s exquisitely somnolent sound.
Legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell joins on three of the tracks and whilst I can’t pinpoint as to who exactly plays what, the interplay between Bill and Dylan is often serenely stunning, with neither musician over stepping the other. The track “Engine of Ruin” is a particularly fine example of this. Both musicians circle like vultures riding the thermals, their actions mirroring one another, phrases and gestures reflected across the open air before spiraling off in opposite directions, gliding across transverse currents and eddies for precious seconds only to return and circle in formation once again. This is a musical dialogue of the most sincere form. Not to be forgotten are the contributions of Don McGreevy on upright and electric bass. He constantly provides a refined musical foundation, his bass tones subtly snaking around the more focal notes of guitar, piano and organ. If there’s one thing that’s essential for the success of any Earth track it’s the conflation of ego. This isn’t a place for guitar heroics or Bonham-esque drum marathons.
Finally it would be remiss of me not to mention Arik Roper’s cover art which captures the climate of the album in wonderful fashion. A very lyrical piece that directly references the title, it’s beautifully rendered in ink and watercolour using sunset hues that perfectly mirror the music’s warm tones. I don’t know if it’s a combination of song structure and the blatant rendering of the passage of time through its deliberate pace, or simply the choice of sounds allowed to rub against each other, but there is always something fundamental about Earth’s music… and Earth is the perfect band name as this music always feels like it comes with its own gravitational force. Ten years since its release The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull is still a frequent companion to me, if you haven’t yet made room for this record in your life I suggest you do so.
– Black Antlers
Tribulation and the Paradox of Metal Stardom
“Don’t ever let any band tell you they just want to play music. They’re all in it for the money.”
I can’t recall exactly what the context was, but this was one of the many bits of guided wisdom I absorbed from my father at an impressionable age at some point in the 90s. “Don’t drink Gatorade if you aren’t exercising. It’ll mess you up” was also a good one. As a young adult with a fully formed preference in the days of Reagan’s 1980s, he was in store for a lot. He was there when Guns N’ Roses followed up Appetite For Destruction by throwing everything against the wall hoping something would stick (and let’s all take a moment to be thankful that young Axel Rose’s ultra-problematic worldview did not). He was there as Dave Mustain slowly and steadily devolved into a far right nut-job constantly chasing the ever heightening behemoth that was Metallica like Wiley Coyote.
As for Metallica, that’s a screed for another time. Despite that whole can of worms, The Black Album was a near constant fixture in my life for quite some time. I remember frequently hearing “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” playing around the house and in the car, but I still have never heard my father say anything about post-1991 Metallica. Watching bands he had built his musical identity around lose their visions to the record company game made him understandably cynical about things like the charts, MTV Unplugged, the music industry dog and pony show as a whole, and possibly grunge. I’m just glad he’s unaware of things like Spotify and streaming numbers. I’m not saying Tribulation have “sold-out”. How the hell does a death metal band sell-out in 2018? It’s just the easy, de-facto criticism to stick onto Down Below and I’m sure you’ve seen it by now. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a similarity between Tribulation and these since fallen giants. The similarity being: the absurdity of the spotlight.
For a moment, consider this: A scrappy death metal band that’s been at it for a few years just released their third album. It’s the most popular thing they’ve done by a mile and tastemakers are already calling it their best work to date. The newfound (moderate) fame can be attributed to years of honing their craft and finding their voice, but a large part of it is also due to a noticeably tweaked sound. The past work was characterized by a somewhat familiar take on the sub-genre with added psychedelic color pallets. The new sound is focused and much more in line with what the classic NWOBHM metal bands may have sounded like if they took off in the 10s. Results include: a top spot on nearly every year end list, a record deal with Century Media, and a slot opening for the most popular extreme metal band in the world (and maybe ever), Deafheaven. Not bad for a group of guys who once opened an album with a song titled “Vagina Dentata”.
No doubt, there was a bit of culture shock on that Deafheaven tour. As we all know, metal’s most buzzed about band isn’t just for metal. It’s a certainty that every Deafheaven show serves as the first ever black metal concert for a whole lot of people. It’s hard to imagine packed or even half-filled rooms during Tribulation’s sets. Of course, Tribulation took note and Down Below is more than a correction. Along with roping in new fans, these Scandinavians are aiming to blow the roof off the big rooms by way of sky rocketing leads and choruses that are aimed to be shouted back at them by legions of fanatics the world over. In other words, Tribulation are looking to become arena conquering heroes. They seem to be well on their way too. Notable metal and more democratically minded outlets have been frothing at the mouth over this thing and the phrase “instant classic” has been thrown around at eyebrow raising rates. But hold up! Before we get too far ahead, remember: this is metal we’re talking about it. If metal is anything, it’s divisive. There’s absolutely no way the genre’s first event album of the year is going to slip through clean. Not if we Blocland contrarians have anything to say about it.
Down Below isn’t a bad album. I completely understand why it’s gotten the accolades it has. In a big picture sense, it’s a natural step in the band’s progression. Choruses hit hard, guitar lines are sticky, and Johannes Andersson’s croak is as raspy as ever. Which is all well and good, but the songs just aren’t there. For starters, “Lady Death” is just The Children of the Night by the numbers, though I’ll always applaud anyone for attempting to write an anthem about literally fucking death. “The World” starts off strong with a guitar melody and charge that sounds strikingly similar to Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”. So much so, I can’t listen to it without picturing The Wall‘s concert goers trampling over themselves and cuts to World War II. It continues to climb and build until it reaches a frustratingly underwhelming conclusion and just sort of stops. The album also leans further into ambience than it should. Music boxes clink along on “Subterranea” and “Purgatorio” in a way that would have evoked creeping atmospheres in 1987, but not in 2018 when every big budget horror movie of the past twelve years has used similar means to signal lowest-common-denominator jump scares.
But, like I said, Down Below isn’t an outright bad album. “Nightbound” features the kind of riffed-out groove that I simply cannot wrap my head around. But the true gems are found in the album’s bookended tracks: “The Lament” and “Come, Become, to Be”. The former, with it’s gothic guitar lines and dramatic keys, is easily one of Tribulation’s finest moments to date. The latter, manages to merge the different personalities the band has tried on since The Formulas of Death into what could be an exciting direction for record number five. Unfortunately, “Come, Become, to Be” also highlights the album’s major flaw. The closing stretch catapults into a vamping riff that should signify and explosive finish. Instead, the album’s most exciting moment lasts roughly five seconds and, just like that, the album’s over. The majority of Down Below plagued by undercooked ideas that last way too long or interesting ideas that aren’t given nearly enough time to reach their full potential.
Music aside, Down Below has yielded my new favorite aspect of Tribulation. I absolutely love the androgynous vampire vibe going on. They all look like extras in The Crow. “The Lament” video is a masterclass in showmanship but doesn’t truly become something to behold until Jonathan Hulten randomly contorts into a back bend reserved for the limberest of gymnasts and death metal guitarists, apparently. It’s all far more sensual than this grime caked subgenre has any right to be. Tribulation has always had a very dark and mysterious vibe, but now I can only see the get-up as Andrew Eldritch binging on Mercyful Fate in a Transylvanian dungeon. In a sea of groups either dressed in hooded cloaks or the sleeveless t-shirts of some other guy’s band, this is the kind of aesthetic and theatricality the genre begs for.
In no way is it time to call it quits on Tribulation. They’re an immensely talented group of musicians with a very respectable track record. These kinds of relatively minor missteps and growing pains are expected when bands pull themselves out of their comfort zones and aim for the rafters. There’s charms to be found in the record and it’s quite possible that it’ll end up growing on me. And all things considered, I’m taken aback by how metal it is. Yes, Tribulation are looking to expand their fanbase, but any and all new fans are going to have to meet them on their own terms. Andersson is never going to clean up and they aren’t throwing out their copies of Stained Class anytime soon. Tribulation just wasn’t quite ready for this kind of album, which is understandable. A record that leaves it all out in the studio is an undertaking. The necessary next step is ample time and patience to grow into the version of themselves they’re looking to be.
The Atlas Moth Coma Noir
I never would’ve pegged The Atlas Moth as a concept album band. 2009‘s debut A Glorified Piece of Blue-Sky and the 2011 followup, An Ache For the Distance, showcased an admirably no-frills, workmanlike take on sludge that found time for Doors of Perception style zone-outs. The Chicago band looked to Southerners like Eyehategod and Baroness while adding stoner-friendly blacklight psychedelia. It’s also worth noting that this a band that openly cites The Flaming Lips as a main influence. If that’s the case, then Coma Noir is their Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Much like The Lips in 2002, The Atlas Moth have streamlined their sound in favor of concise and relatively straightforward song writing that make the moments of freak exploration all the more intriguing.
Mastodon riffs and Neurosis inspired atmospheres lay the backdrop for the grim details of a cult modeled after the hard-boiled pulp of Old Hollywood told through David Kush’s unshakable grit and Stavros Giannopoulos’ feral shrieks (and if this merch is anything to go off of, someone was listening to a whole lot of Duran Duran). This newfound interest in tight arrangements doesn’t block the flow of druggy sordidness oozing out of every crevice. Album highlight “The Streets of Bombay” reflects the rain drenched alley ways and cheap, roach infested hostels where “bedroom eyes” should be treated as a warning. “Furious Gold” builds an ear worm chorus out of the threat “Give into me or a hole is where you’ll be”. The culmination is a noir tale that’s less Raymond Chandler and more William S. Burroughs.
Eigenlicht Self-Annihilating Consciousness
It’s been suggested here at Blocland that the metal staff are in the pocket of Gilead Media given the the amount of column inches we’ve devoted to their releases. All I will say is that if we were, myself, Lobster and Frye would be sitting up to our ears in quality free music. As it stands, speaking for myself, every single Gilead Media release finds it’s way into my hands via the bequeathing of hard currency accumulated from my soul sapping day job. But enough with the self pity and on with the music…
Eigenlicht were initially something of an unknown quantity to this writer, that is until I eyeballed who makes up the numbers. Nested in their midst are metal gunslingers who’ve done time with the likes of Skagos, Ekstasis and (Antlers favourite) Fauna. However previous form does not necessary guarantee current content. With Self-Annihilating Consciousness, Eigenlicht have, like many before them crafted a series of lengthy paeans clearly. in thrall to Norwegian 2nd wave black metal. So why should you give this your attention then? Well, they may be drinking the Norge Koolaid but Eigenlicht have chosen a flavour that we don’t seem to get too much of circa 2018. I’m talking Stormblast era Dimmu Borgir. And what a pleasure it is to hear, especially when done this arrestingly; and considering we are unlikely to hear anything like it from Dimmu themselves ever again.
The drums are very thin sounding; despite periodically cutting loose with the blastbeats they never overpower the classic warbling tremolo riffs or melodic keyboard runs. In fact they tend to sit so far back in the mix that at times they build part of the musics ambience rather than rumbling underneath or punching through it. A couple of times I had to consciously check they were still in the mix. Or maybe I’ve been listening to too much cavernous death metal. Those keyboard sounds are surprisingly kooky for this day and age. They have a certain awkwardness of tone, almost stubbornly refusing to mix with the other instrumentation, however the effect is akin to the gleaming beauty of oil on water.
Given the pedigree of those involved it should come as no surprise that Eigenlicht deftly pepper their sound with some wonderful flourishes and flavours. Vocals run the gamut from clean to banshee shriek, before taking a leap into truly forlorn funeral doom territory. The guitars also spin into the doom however they’re rendered weird through the continued adherence to the time honoured brittle black metal sound. Compositionally songs seem slightly unbalanced, sounds and passages never quite arrive when you expect them. Now we’re not talking Krallice levels of obtuseness here, rather a more subtle sense of a slowly decaying orbit. If that peaks your interest then give the track ‘Hagia Sophia’ a spin.
Yes I like it, here’s a Pitchfork score 7.9.
– Black Antlers