What a long strange trip it's been indeed. When Earth -- basically Dylan Carlson -- disappeared from the music scene after Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, he'd become a black sheep to virtually everyone. Lost in the swirl of drug addiction, and having bought the gun that Kurt Cobain used in his suicide, it took years for Carlson to come to grips with his own evil spirits. While interest in the band never completely waned, it took the likes of Sunn 0))) and other big feedbacking drone worshipers to bring it to fruition. In 2005, Carlson's new Earth returned with Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, a record that was less deafening, but strangely and hypnotically beautiful nonetheless, taking as a primary inspiration the spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone as a cue to create a new minimal soundscape that was sun-bleached, bone-dry, and more mysterious than anything they'd done before. Issued by Stephen O'Malley's Southern Lord label, 2008's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull has a package that is something to behold, with a black textured slipcase, the band name and title embossed in gold, and a booklet featuring a perfect illustration of the title by Arik Roper in four-color glossy glorious art. The title of the album comes from the Old Testament of the Bible in the narrative of Samson and Delilah. Other than Carlson on guitars (and amplifiers), Earth also include drummer Adrienne Davies, Steve Moore on acoustic and Wurlitzer pianos and Hammond B-3, and bassist Don McGreevy (both electric and upright). Guitarist Bill Frisell helps out on four cuts as well, and Randall Dunn produced the set. Fans of the heavier, more ear-shattering version of the group will find themselves drawn to this more than Hex or the live Hibernaculum set; that said, The Bees Made Honey should also attract more recent listeners. Big guitars abound, but they're musical; they're as informed by a much more ringing brand of country sound that can be heard on records ranging from those of Lee Hazlewood to Thin White Rope's Tucson-drenched sonic six-string wind-downs. But in true Earth fashion, the long droning form is back, albeit tempered by minimal repetitive melodies that are simple in structure but hold great power.
The set begins with "Omens and Portents I: The Driver." It's nine minutes of controlled crawl. Carlson's guitar and wah-wah pedal are colored by the high ringing tone of Frisell's trademark sound -- albeit it far less ornamental than listeners are used to hearing him. Davies' drums, so easy to overlook, are perfect in their minimal, muted tom-tom pace; they help to register the tension in this gradually unfolding melody. Reverb, controlled feedback, detuned drone, and high-pitched whine all gradually flood the foreground while the bass and drums hold the line and simultaneously make the tempo nearly unbearable. The Wurlitzer paints the ground between the front-line instruments and the rhythm section, and hints of a lyric statement emerge, fade, disappear, and mutate into others -- very, very slowly. It's dark, powerful, forbidding music. "Rise to Glory," while still heavy despite the restraint in volume, is somewhat brighter. Carlson uses big chords, a slowly evolving riff, and a high-twang country ring in his attack, and the drums walk a middle ground between pulse and actual time signature. The acoustic piano that creeps and asserts itself between the guitar sounds is painterly, and feels like some kind of arrival from the wasteland. "Miami Morning Coming Down II (Shine)," which has almost a nursery rhyme melody, but its gradual pacing cleanses the palette of sentimentality and instead evolves into something resembling movement toward a much richer sonic landscape. With large B-sharp washes, off-rhythm single beats, and a droning bassline, this is as close to a song as Carlson has ever composed. The front-line complexity reaches its zenith in the middle of the record on "Engine of Ruin," where Frisell gets to work his magic in concert with Carlson playing an octave apart. The ringing open tone of his guitar and the low-slung harshness of the latter are complex, dynamically rich, and beautifully textural. Elements of the blues, big-riffing '70s rock (albeit tempered by the wonderful separation and clarity of the sound), and rockist sway make this one of the album's highlights.
The darkness returns on the latter half of the record, more pronounced with less actual articulation on the second part of the opening theme, introduced by a rumbling acoustic piano, knotty harmonics, and a framed melodic statement that is more complex and slightly faster, but still s-l-o-o-o-o-w; think of the flow of raw honey as it emerges from the cone. The final two cuts, "Hung from the Moon" and the title track, are so deeply atmospheric and beautifully arrayed that they need to be heard rather than discussed -- except to say that the latter is actually Earth's attempt at a shuffle, but in a time signature and dynamic manner that is all their own. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull is more musical and adventurous than anything Earth have ever issued. It's a record that gets inside your body as well as your head and won't let go. It's rich and adventurous, and still contains the kind of restraint that allows for the spaces between sounds to accommodate their own voices. If Carlson and Earth don't get real soundtrack work for this brand of monumentally cinematic rock, there is no justice. It's odd to think that a band around this long is finally reaching its peak rather than trying to hold on to past glories.