22 years since their formation the pioneers of doom drone, Earth, finally made it to Australia, with their final gig last Saturday night at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, supported by local progressive instrumental band Margins and solo guitarist, loopiest and pedalist Bonnie Mercer.
Leading up to the show, and for no real reason other than the stoner tag, I kept picturing black and white footage of Pink Floyd playing ‘Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun’ to a crowd of long-haired hippies sitting around on a mild afternoon at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse in 1971. The audience in that clip looks well and truly stoned and pretty much in a trance, and I wondered just how stoner Earth’s crowd would be. Watching the numbers build it was soon clear that they were more hipster than hippie, and on the whole, regardless of age or gender, were well acquainted with Mr Soap. It became clear we would be standing tonight rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Speaking of sitting, it’s not often I see guitar bands sitting on chairs when they perform, but it was a portent for the feel of the night that this is just what Margins did. There was little fuss, no sound check, just sit down and start playing. Without a mic for addressing the crowd it was left for Adam Cooper to speak up and say hello. Starting with ‘Gulag’, bass and guitar set up repeating reverb phrases over sparse drumming accentuated by the odd crack of a rimshot. These foundations were joined by bursts of melodica, the song building teasingly before settling back down. ‘Cowboys’ and ‘Ice Station’ followed – songs that strung together clear and delicate components with a strong sense of droney repetition and great dynamics.
In addition to pedals the guys used whatever means they could to extract a range of sounds from guitar and bass, picking and strumming from bridge to nut and tapping every part of the guitar bodies as they established grooves and lines that they alternatively threaded melodies and hooks around, occasionally with contrasting time signatures. ‘Man Versus Nature’ and ‘Transmission Blues’ rounded out an atmospheric, technical and engaging set that got a healthy acknowledgement from the building crowd.
Next up was Bonnie Mercer. Again there was no fuss, just out on stage and on with the set. And oh what a set- around 30 minutes of reverb guitar, pedal and loop heaven in one continuous improvised song. The music lived and breathed, snaking it sway through the venue and the crowd and into your head, tapping into your brain, synching its heartbeat to yours, its brainwaves to yours. Occasionally the creature would dig deeper, embedding itself further into your mind, the tones warm and compelling as you invited it in. There was no need to force itself on you, nor did it disguise itself in sugary hooks, melodies and vocals before revealing an empty shell.
Behind the walls of reverb Bonnie set up loops and bent the sounds with her pedal settings to create a series of oscillations that never stayed around too long and never sounded predictable, yet conveyed a confident purpose and direction. Although one song, it travelled through three or four distinct movements, then in what seemed no time at all it was over and with a wave to the appreciative crowd Bonnie was gone.
Until now the mood of the night was relaxed and unceremonious, the music reasonably loud but not to the point of distortion. It was a theme that continued as the curtains opened to reveal Earth, playing as a three piece. Dylan Carlson announced the band and made the request that there be no flash photography on the basis that he is “an asshole” but that other than this people could make whatever recordings and take whatever photos they want. He spoke gently, didn’t spout the “hello Melbourne you are the best audience in the universe we couldn’t wait to come and play here” bullshit, and in doing so gave permission for the crowd not to treat them like the Gods of drone, but just three musicians playing a few songs.
Then without more ado Earth opened with ‘Multiplicity of Doors’, which Dylan described as “a waltz”. It was quieter than I expected. It didn’t peel the paint off the walls, shatter your eardrums and make merry with your insides and I was pretty content with that. Drummer Adrienne Davies played with a theatrical, exaggerated style; huge arcs of the sticks disproportionate to their impact on the skins and cymbals, personifying the feeling of restraint in the set. It was all about subtlety- the drone was perfect with just that hint of phrase and melody that separated one song from the next.
New song ‘Badger’ went down well and ‘Ouroboros is Broken’ got a huge response from the crowd. Rather than running each song into the next there were breaks for retuning and announcing titles, and during a particularly long one before ‘Old Black’ someone, for some unknown reason, squawked out “Kurt Cobain” which rightfully drew the response nearby of “That is an outrage”.
Highlight for me was ‘The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull’, which has a few great false endings, building up that tension in contrast to the drone. Other than that it was late style Earth, played to perfection and holding the crowd totally engaged. Well almost totally, but the chatter was pretty light on for an instrumental rock gig, especially after someone yelled out “Oh will you shut the fuck up with your talking”.
Promoter Heathen Skulls pulled together two great supports for a band drone fans had been waiting to see since, well, since they were drone fans. Dylan was unforced in his interaction with the crowd, the band so relaxed and down-to-earth, and on a night that took us all away from hyperbole and superlatives it’s enough for me to just say that on a cold wet Sunday night in Melbourne, no one would have gone home anything other than completely satisfied.
Earth – facebook page
Bonnie Mercer - tumblr
Margins – facebook page