It may come as a surprise to some to learn that ‘drone’, far from being a derogatory term for music that sounds like industrial imploding in self-righteous boredom, is actually a genre.
Calling a genre ‘doom metal’ – drone’s alternative name – was never going to assure widespread public affection either, calling to mind as it does a morose Maiden fan or a forlorn sheet of aluminium, your choice. Pioneers of drone – or, if you prefer, doom metal – Earth consistently blow such timid preconceptions out of the water, and latest opus The Bees... is no exception. Epic, soundscape music, the album conjures up swathes of desert with fewer riffs than it took The Joshua Tree.
The Bees... is a move away from Earth’s past few albums (this took a few years hiatus in an avant-garde jazz band, apparently). Drone it still is, but The Bees... piles on layer upon layer of Eno-esque synth, creating acres of space by squeezing every last note from the decay, overdriving the amps until you feel they should be allowed to unionise. The guitar comes across – sometime longterm influence The Melvins, sometime Godspeed You, Black Emperor – arching out of the feedback, shattering the implied continuity of the music. It would be uncomfortable if it didn’t answer some deep-seated need for a melody somewhere in the field of feedback. Rhythm, far from being lost to the overriding hum of experimental guitar-jazz, structures (as loosely as possible) a best that refuses to be caged, forlornly marking the end of a bar for a set of musicians who couldn’t care less.
It feels harsh to try and separate tracks out when they’re fused so organically – suffice to say Miami Morning Coming Down II is the least bleak, drenched in sunshine and optimism. Well, not when compared to, say, Mika, but certainly juxtaposed with the rest of the album. Engine of Ruin, meanwhile, leaps from piano-chord progressions to Santana-style desert rock noodling, showcasing the talents of guest guitarist – and master of distortion - Bill Frisell.
Earth have, in the course of their roughly 15-yr-old career, done more than anyone to claim drone a space of its own – they’ve released consistently innovative albums, with them inspiring a whole new generation of experimental artists – SunO)) and Harvey Milk, for example. With The Bees... Earth have raised the bar for their musical protégées. The highs are higher and the lows are lower, and the soundscape is even more vast and vivid than before - which, for the grandfathers of doom, is no small feat.