The quintessential difficult decision is almost always a “lesser of two evils” situation. In music, this typically manifests in an artist’s path forward; do they forge ahead along the charted path, or divert into untrodden territory? We can look at bands like Opeth, Kayo Dot and Ulver as examples of bands who changed course from an established, acclaimed sound, to differing choruses of praise and jeers. This is where this unsavory decisionmaking comes into play: maintaining their established sound may leave them feeling stunted, while testing new ideas will certainly alienate at least a portion of their core fanbase.
At least from an outside perspective, it certainly seems like Dylan Carlson has reached this type of situation with his groundbreaking drone project Earth. After building the framework for traditional drone metal with Earth’s early releases, Carlson returned from an extended hiatus with a new core sound revolving around psychedelic rock and Gothic Americana. Starting with Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method, Carlson and company began subtly tinkering with a formula of dusty, hypnotic riffs and patient, sparse percussion gradually developing over the course of each track. Along with each release came additional instrumentation and compositional choices, namely the incorporation of piano and organ on Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, followed by extensive use of cello on Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II.
And then, this trajectory changed just as abruptly as it had emerged from Carlson’s hiatus. Sure, you have a handful of collaborations between Carlson and electronic producer The Bug which have created some intriguing drone releases like Concrete Desert. But among Carlson’s/Earth’s main discography, the decision was clearly made to take the road less traveled, in this case being an ironic shift backward. Other than some misplaced and mediocre vocals on Primitive and Deadly, the album felt like the band was trending back toward a basic iteration of their sound, leaning more heavily on the stoner doom tendencies of older releases like Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Carlson’s subsequent solo album Conquistador followed a similar yet simpler path, ultimately feeling a bit more engaging but not truly fresh.
In listening to these releases, as well as Full Upon Her Burning Lips, it seems to me that Carlson has reached max capacity in terms of what he wants to incorporate into Earth’s sound; he’d rather return to the roots of the style he’s molded into various forms across the last several albums. Of course, I could be wrong about Carlson’s intentions, and obviously, he’s free to take whatever path he chooses as a songwriter. But purely from a listener’s perspective, it’s difficult to sit through Full Upon Her Burning Lips and not feel like Earth have retraced their steps on a worn out path.
Overall, the album feels like a blueprint for an Earth album with few additional details built out from that foundation. Opener “Datura’s Crimson Veils” and midpoint track “She Rides an Air of Malevolence” offer the spacey, psychedelic side of the band’s stoner doom tendencies across 10+ minutes, performed by the book with little in the way of variation. The group employs the core facets of Earth’s sound – plodding percussion boosting Carlson’s methodical riffs, played at a pace comparable to the viscosity of molasses. Following “Datura’s Crimson Veil,” the band doubles down on their psych rock ideas on “Exaltation of the Larks,” though it’s a relatively short excursion at a fraction of the runtime of a typical Earth song. Right after, “Cats on the Briar” presents the most blatant homage to Bees Made Honey that the band have recorded since its release. While an enjoyable track, it’s the definition of retreaded ground.
Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal more to say that won’t begin to sound redundant. This is partially due to the way the album is structured, with 10 tracks pushing just past the hour mark. Earth has approached 10 tracks on previous albums, but they were typically comprised of a combination of longer tracks with brief interludes. On Full Upon Her Burning Lips, all but the two aforementioned 10+ minute songs hover around the five-minute mark, making for a collection of tracks that just don’t develop in the same way that songs on an album like Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light do. The subtle development of Carlson’s guitar riffs has always been the key to Earth’s sound, but that technique has always thrived most when Carlson has plenty of track time to unravel his chord progressions. Here, these compositions feel somewhat unfinished, almost as though they’ve been cut in half.
In fairness, there are certainly some moments of intrigue. “Descending Belladonna” may truly be the bell of the ball, with Carlson placing a heightened emphasis on melody and atmosphere for one of Earth’s most unique tracks in some time. It still relies heavily on the band’s core sound, but the slight adjustments make for an invigorated approach. Again, it would likely benefit from some extra runtime to truly build on Carlson’s ideas. “Maiden’s Catafalque” has a similarly interesting melodic edge, though it fizzles out with less than three minutes to work with. Album finale “A Wretched Country of Dusk” also boasts some melancholic, Gothic country riffing that makes for a satisfying conclusion to the album, especially after such a long runtime and singular sound.
Other than some awkward chord progressions on “The Colour of Poison,” there’s truly nothing to tear apart on Earth’s ninth proper full-length. Unfortunately, the variation seen across these releases has slowly dried up over the past few years. Other than the spattering of fresh ideas highlighted above, there’s very little across Full Upon Her Burning Lips that strays aways from Earth’s established sound, made all the more disappointing by the fact that Carlson had previously prioritized innovation, however slight.
At the end of my lukewarm review for Conquistador, I wrote that “‘good’ can devolve into ‘stale’ (or worse) in just an album’s time.” While Full Upon Her Burning Lips is certainly an improvement over Primitive and Deadly, it doesn’t demonstrate the level of progression that the band had consistently churned out over the bulk of their career. Carlson’s status as a drone pioneer will always be enough to give him the benefit of the doubt when approaching any of his new releases or side projects. But for now, those listens will be cautious spins in anticipation of another middling release far below the standard Earth had established time and again throughout their career.
Full Upon Her Burning Lips is available May 24 via Sargent House.