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Earth / Black Spirituals (live at Komedia)

24 February 2015

Last time Earth came to Brighton they played The Haunt, a tiny space which scores highly on the intimacy scale, but you couldn’t help feeling a band of this stature deserved a bigger stage, both literally and metaphorically. It’s pleasing then to see them upgrading to the Komedia, but before the main event we have the intriguingly named Black Spirituals, who turn out to be a duo from Oakland, California.

Black Spirituals Komedia February 2015 2

Zachary Watkins, on guitar and electronics, provides a hazy mid-range backdrop over which drummer Marshall Trammell improvises ever-changing percussive patterns, like an expressionist painter daubing Miro-like pictograms over his bandmate’s canvas. He’s a superb drummer – I was repeatedly reminded of Rashied Ali’s playing on John Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’, and while I hesitate to make such an exalted comparison, I’m guessing it’s an apt one, as the pair come across as belonging to a lineage that’s traceable back to the avant-jazz excursions of Coltrane and the ‘fire music’ of Albert Ayler – certainly their name suggests they see themselves this way.

Black Spirituals Komedia February 2015 2

With these kinds of references, there’s a danger of setting yourself up for a serious fall, but Black Spirituals deliver something fresh and original, a rarity in these jaded post-everything times, and I urge you to check them out – there are clips on YouTube, but why not support them in material fashion by snagging their fine recent album Of Deconstruction.

Earth Komedia February 2015

When Earth take the stage, they’re constituted differently from the last time they were here: this time they’re a trio (Don McGreevy on bass, Adrienne Davies on drums, and mainman Dylan Carlson on guitar). The difference isn’t just one of personnel, however – rather mysteriously, Carlson appears significantly younger than when I last laid eyes on him three or four years ago. More on that later.

It’s over 20 years now since Earth unwittingly spawned the drone-metal genre with their confusingly-titled classic album Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Edition (it’s their first album and only comes in one edition), a monumental slab of hypnotic low-end sludge which set the template for SunnO))) and others (all of them vastly inferior to Earth, in this reviewer’s opinion – hold the comments section) – but they’ve long since moved to a style that fuses roots Americana (looping, country-blues guitar figures) with the raga-like long-form structures that have always been their trademark.

Earth Komedia February 2015

Everything is slow, weighty – the tempo never does anything as vulgar as speed up, and just to be sure, Davies keeps time moving s-l-o-w-l-y by raising her arms high in the air between drumbeats, almost as if she is playing in a series of freeze frames. It’s a theatrical but highly effective device – whether it really helps her and her bandmates stick to the rhythm I don’t know, but seen from the audience, it serves to emphasise the tension and release of each beat. And this is important, because it’s this tension and release that gives this stately, largely unvarying music its strange power. What this means, though, is that they have to be absolutely precise to sustain it – whenever it gets even slightly ragged, the spell is broken.

Earth Komedia February 2015

The set draws heavily on recent album Primitive And Deadly, with impressive results, although “There is a Serpent Coming” (which has vocals on the album, courtesy of Mark Lanegan) sounds a little thin when played as an instrumental. But “Even Hell Has Its Heroes” and “Torn By the Fox of the Crescent Moon” hit the spot nicely – the rhythm section throbs and oozes, and over it Carlson plays those aforementioned cyclical twangy guitar licks, each minor variation in the phrasing seeming hugely significant. The highlight is “The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull”, although this is very much the kind of gig where it’s the whole, rather than the parts, that matter. How to summarise that whole? Something to do with the mythology of the Old West recast as an ancient shamanic rite, or even a way of being. It runs the risk of being extremely hokey, but mostly it isn’t, because of that tension and release, tension and release.

Earth Komedia February 2015

Speaking of ancient shamans, how can it be that Carlson looks so much younger? Presumably it’s an illusion wrought by modern haircare and healthier living, but it’s so striking that I mention it to Al in the pub afterwards as we’re pondering all this mystic cowboy stuff. Well there you go, he says – he’s come out of the desert and aged backwards. And that seems to settle it. This heavy, dry, dusty Earth magic – you know what? It really works.

-Words: Haunted Shoreline-
-Pictures: Al Robertson-

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