Over the course of his tenure with the influential band Earth, Dylan Carlson has gathered a reputation as an innovator of drone rock. Yet as the evolution present in that band's post-hiatus output and his own solo recordings suggest, that sole accolade is a reductive view of a rich and varied career.
2017 was a characteristically busy year for Carlson and saw Earth release a collaborative record with experimental electronic artist the Bug and a live album recorded at Jack White's Third Man Studios. The previous year, as Drcarlsonalbion, he released the solo record Falling with a 1000 Stars and Other Wonders from the House of Albion (with Coleman Grey), on which he indulged his interest in English folklore. For his first recording under his own name, Carlson returns to the American influences that pervaded 2014's Gold for a distinctly scorched desert vibe.
The record opens with the circular title track, which builds a roaming, distorted guitar line that eventually overwhelms the main riff. Within these repetitions, and a 13-plus-minute running time, Carlson builds a foreboding tension and an exposition shot that is so evocative of dusty landscapes, blinding rays, and dry heat it conjures visceral visions. The imagery and ambiance build over the arc of the album, from the sun-bleached, bluesy tilt of "When the Horses Were Shorn of The" through the creepy, insect-infested interlude "And Then the Crows Descend," creating a thoroughly immersive world. As was often noted about Gold, it's a world that rejects Hollywood's fetishization of western mythology for a revisionism more closely linked to the bleak perspective of Cormac McCarthy's writing.
Yet Conquistador is also a richly cinematic and ominous specter, perhaps most dramatically on "Scorpions in Their Mouths." The track opens with white noise soon broken by an arching, rusty guitar roar which bucks and resists, writhing as if covered in an uncomfortable mixture of sweat and dust. Carlson goes deeper and darker than Ennio Morricone, delving into the brutal heart of the frontier with a steady hand and an unflinching glare. Conquistador is tantalizingly indistinct but never ambiguous, much like the transitory figures it conjures.
Earth may have taken an extended break back in the '90s, but since then Carlson has become one of the most prolific and consistently rewarding artists currently operating within experimental music. Conquistador marks another fine chapter in this intrepid frontiersman's musical journey.