As your speakers are crushed by the first riff of “Old Black” – the opening track on Earth’s latest, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 – images begin flashing across your brain. Instantly, your mind takes you back to the old West. Tumbleweeds, whiskey, and gunplay are some of your first thoughts as your brain jumps from a saloon, where a violent fight has broken out, to a dusty prairie where you see a strong, hunched figure in the distance.
It’s your run-of-the-mill cowboy. But he’s not grinning sarcastically or trying to look tough. He’s barely capable of standing. He’s lurching, at best, and he plummets to the dirt, fists first, only to push himself back up to continue his trek. There are bullet holes all over his jacket and he’s bleeding badly, barely able to breathe without coughing up a bit of blood. And he hits the ground again, only to stumble to one knee before you rush to his side. The cowboy looks at you, coughs twice, and begins waxing on his current state of pain and anguish.
And just like that, you’re immersed in the sounds of Angels 1. It’s Earth’s first album since 2008’s immense and critically acclaimed The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. And like that record, Angels 1 follows the band’s sonic progression made evident on 2005’s Hex. It was that project that brought forth Earth’s new sound and style. It also marked the return of Dylan Carlson, who, if you don’t know, is the man behind Earth. Prior to Hex’s release, the band hadn’t released anything since 1996’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, an affair very much in line with their origins in soul-shattering, droning doom metal.
To be fair, Carlson was beginning to show his movement toward slightly more straightforward rock there. But he would soon run into drug and legal troubles, which resulted in his taking considerable time off from music to focus on fixing his personal life. Nine years later, Hex hit us all like a ton of bricks with its country music influences and less distorted guitar work. And as Carlson and company continued recording, his music kept on growing and expanding on the drone doom sound that he pioneered early in his career.
Now, that’s not to say Earth’s music has all of a sudden become entirely accessible and palatable for your every-day music listener on Angels 1. The songs are all longer than seven minutes, with the title-track closing the album at 20-plus minutes. And amidst the cleaner tones it’s still got some heaviness that might turn off some of you. But there’s a lot more traditional musicianship along with more focused songwriting throughout Angels 1. That can be partially attributed to Lori Goldston, whose cello playing adds a frazzled haunting vibe, especially on “Father Midnight”.
Elsewhere, though, Carlson’s immense guitar remains the focal point of Earth, from his echoing strokes on the chilling-yet-gorgeous “Descent to the Zenith” to the brighter, rising tones of the title-track. Yet, his licks are at their best when accompanied by finely juxtaposed, gruff bass riffs, such as on “Hell’s Winter”. There is also ample emotion being evoked across Angels 1‘s hour-long run time. It’s an extremely dark, brooding affair that brings to mind the aforementioned battered and bruised cowboy. That cowboy, in the case of the album, is Carlson, who has been suffering from health-related issues. He has said in interviews that it’s likely his personal trials have made their way into his songwriting, which is why an air of mourning can be heard here.
The fact that he’s able to convey that much feeling across a fully instrumental piece without resorting to crescendos, bright guitars, or other cheap emotive tactics says a lot about the record. Even if you’re frightened by the longer-than-long track lengths, the heavier guitars, and the lack of vocals, Earth’s latest album deserves your attention.