Earth returned from a nine-year hiatus in 2005 with Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method. But it was 2008's equally wordy The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull that cemented the return of Dylan Carlson's outfit from the wilderness. These two albums completely reworked the template the band had laid down during the '90s; drumless guitar drones and resonations accompanied by deep, tonal sounds on tracks often lasting 30 minutes. It was avant-garde music for stoners, headbangers and metalheads.
Now in his early forties, with a greying mutton chop beard and dressed impeccably, Carlson looks like the elder statesmen of a turn-of-the-century town on the American frontier. Apart from his ocean-blue eyes he is almost unrecognisable from the strung-out youth seen in Nick Broomfield's 1998 doc Kurt & Courtney, talking about the death of his close friend and visibly struggling with his own addictions. Cobain had played drums and sang on a couple of Earth's live recordings from the period.
"From '96 to 2001, I didn't even have a guitar. I was doing, er, other things," is how Carlson euphemistically describes years of heavy drug use that prevented Earth from recording any new material. "When I returned to Seattle I had to take care of all these legal problems and was in jail for a bit. When I came out I got a guitar again, I didn't have plans to do anything. Me and Adrienne [Davies, drummer and Carlson's partner] didn't plan to do Earth, it just worked out that way, it was a happy accident, like most of the last ten years really."
Since their comeback, Earth has maintained the funereal pace of their earlier material, but eking out subtle melodies with distortion-free guitars rather than revelling in the purifying quality of noise. This is best exemplified on "Miami Morning Come Down II" from Bees, in which the main riff eventually breaks like powerful waves on a shoreline before basking in its guitar tones.
But where Steve Moore's organ provided the backdrop for Carlson's guitar on Bees, on new album, Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light, the band are accompanied by Lori Goldston's cello, which famously appeared on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged. And where Moore's organ cloaked the sonics on Bees, contributing warmth, Goldston's cello work revels in dissonance.
The album is divided in two, with Part I released last year. Listen to both and it reveals itself as a stripped-back, melancholic set, shifting uneasily yet beautifully between pessimism and optimism. This is particularly true of the 20-minute title track, which makes extensive use of Goldston's cello and resembles a requiem. Unsurprising really, considering Carlson's health at the time of recording. "I didn't think I'd live much longer. I had hepatitis B, the wild type," he jokes. "A leftover from the late '90s probably. But the studio sessions went really well. We'd just roll a tape and just see what happens. Bees was very much a studio record - it's dense with a lot of layers - so I wanted Angels Of Darkness to be very sparse."
Sparse it is. On Part II's closer, "The Rakehell", one single riff drifts over 12 minutes, working itself deeper and deeper in a dead-end 2/4 time, trapped by its own nihilistic groove until the final seconds. Then the guitar shifts like a single beam of golden light escaping from behind a cloud. An optimistic end for an elegiac record. "Even if I think a lot of our stuff has a melancholy air," Carlson says of "The Rakehell", "I'm not a bleak person, and I hope the music reflects my view that there are opportunities and options."
Having almost conquered his illness, Carlson reflects on his 20-year career.
"I just figured I'd run the race," he says of his long hiatus, "but we've been more productive now than back then. I don't have some sort of plan for Earth - a lot of it is coincidence." §
Earth's Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Part II is out now on Southern Lord. They tour the UK in March.
Thanks to St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel for the location.