Though solo albums can excel or plummet in multiple different directions, they virtually always follow one of two paths: a slight or negligible deviation from the artist’s main project, or a complete departure from the sound they’ve become associated with. Dylan Carlson—the drone-doom pioneer and founder of Earth—has ventured down both paths with his latest two solo efforts, both of which arrived during the four years after Earth’s divisive album Primitive and Deadly. It’s worth ruminating on this point for a bit, as P&D and Carlson’ latest output represents the second biggest nexus point in Earth career.
After Carlson and company had moved on from straight-up drone-doom and hit their stride with their post-Hex dark Americana drone, they made a sudden about-face with P&D, turning toward a more straightforward stoner metal sound and incorporating vocals more prominently than at any point in Earth’s discography. Carlson continued bucking the norm with Concrete Desert, a borderline industrial metal collaboration with experimental electronic artists The Bug, and now Conquistador, a solo drone album that’s essentially stripped-down Earth. Fans’ interpretation of the results will vary depending on what they want and expect out of Earth. But with Conquistador, it becomes even more clear we should get used to receiving the unexpected, even if that means albums like this that don’t offer up much in the way of an innovative sound.
This isn’t meant to suggest Conquistador is a bad album by any means. Fans of Earth, and particularly Carlson’s distinct playing style, will find quite a bit to enjoy about Carlson’s short but potent collection of hypnotic solo guitar passages. The title track opens the record with a textbook example of why fans have come to adore his approach to guitar: dusty, repetitive guitar licks drift in the wind and slowly develop as the track unwinds, creating sun-kissed daydreams of sipping whiskey shirtless amid arid summer heat. The lack of supplementary instrumentation is certainly felt throughout the album; the organ on Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, cello on Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II and drums on all of the above added exceptional depth to Carlson’s transcendent, riff-laden pilgrimages. But at its core, Carlson’s style works even when it’s just his guitar dominating the conversation, which is ultimately what will make Conquistador a win for most fans.
There isn’t much to fault Carlson for on Conquistador, which is, unfortunately, due in part to their not being a whole lot to say about it in general. Everything I’ve written about the title track is true about the album’s three other proper tracks, with the exception of runtime. If anything, the title track’s 13-minute runtime makes it that much more expansive and fleshed out than the 6-minute average of the ensuing songs, but each track accomplishes Carlson’s overarching ethos in their own way. “And Then the Crowd Descended” is the sole exception, and an odd one at that. The one-minute interlude sounds like an excerpt from a dissonant John Zorn classical piece, but its short stay makes it little more than a bizarre excursion from the completely antithetical focus of the rest of the album. It’s a somewhat interesting blip that feels entirely out of place.
At the end of the day, some albums are just good at what they’re meant to be good at, which is an apt description for what Carlson churned out on his second solo outing in just as many years. Most fans of Earth and drone-doom will certainly find Conquistador to be a perfectly fine album and a slightly above-average reminder of why they started following Carlson in the first place. Still, it’s worth wondering what comes next given the turbulent three-album run Carlson’s led over the past several years. Many Earth fans (myself included) were underwhelmed and/or disappointed by the band’s creative choices on P&D, and while Concrete Desert was an excellent collaborative album, it was far from what Earth has been beloved for since Hex. Capping all this off with an enjoyable and familiar album blows the doors wide-open in terms of what Carlson and company may come out with next, which certainly has its inarguable pros and significant cons. While there’s a chance we’ll see a return to form, there’s also a chance we’ll receive another leftfield experiment or another instance of late-career coasting like Conquistador. Given Earth’s exceptional back catalog, it’s certainly worth waiting to see which direction comes next. Let’s just hope the path Carlson chooses is ultimately worth the patience; “good” can devolve into “stale” (or worse) in just an album’s time.
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