SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Two of the leading lights of the Northwestern heavy underground scene bring their joint tour to San Francisco Tuesday when Earth and Helms Alee play the Great American Music Hall.
A pioneering force in drone/doom metal, guitarist Dylan Carson’s band Earth first came together in Olympia, Washington, in 1989. Using the menacing, tritone-focused riffs of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi as a launching pad (the band even adopted Sabbath’s early name Earth as their moniker), Carlson’s instrumental music pushed heavy music into an experimental territory similar to that explored by Northwestern forebears the Melvins.
Performances in Seattle that showcased the band’s extended tunes and high-volume approach would lead to a record deal with rising independent label Sub Pop Records. While their sound was decidedly less commercially accessible than fellow Sub Pop Nirvana (whose guitarist Kurt Cobain was a longtime friend and roommate of Carlson’s) and Mudhoney, the band’s first EP Extra-Capsular Extraction and proper 1993 debut Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version earned Earth praise for the band’s minimalist exploration of monolithic drone and sternum-rattling distortion.
Carlson continued to explore what he termed “ambient metal” with a rotating cast of collaborators, releasing Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions and the more song-oriented Pentastar: In the Style of Demons before the band would go on an extended hiatus as the guitarist struggled with personal problems including a crippling addiction to heroin. His story became irrevocably linked to Cobain’s after Carlson notoriously bought the Nirvana frontman the shotgun that he used to take his own life.
Carlson would emerge on the other side, sober and drug free after serving time for a burglary that landed him in jail. In 2000, he convened a new line-up of Earth and began exploring a new directions that — while still minimalist, with glacial tempos and heavy guitars — drew on a more rustic, country feel. Citing Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks, Neil Young (particularly his haunting soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man) and country guitarist Duane Eddy among the influences heard on 2005’s Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method, Carlson’s return from oblivion was hailed by critics and music fans alike.
Meanwhile, a number of groups that claimed Earth as an inspiration like Japanese experimental doom merchants Boris and robed drone terrorists Sunn 0))) — whose co-founder Greg Anderson signed the rejuvenated Earth to his Southern Lord label — also helped elevate the band’s status as prime movers of the metal underground.
A string of acclaimed releases would follow, all featuring drummer Adrienne Davies (a constant in the band since it resurfaced) anchoring Earth’s slowly flowering, cinematic sounds. Highlights of their discography include 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull — which boasted contributions from jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell — the two part epic Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light and the band’s last release, the stunning Primitive and Deadly in 2014 that featured Built to Spill guitarist Brett Nelson and vocals from Northwestern great Mark Lanegan on two songs.
The band’s last tour in the fall of 2018 found Earth revisiting the fan favorite The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, but this time around Carlson and company will be playing songs from Full Upon Her Burning Lips, the band’s first new effort in five years that recently came out on Sergeant House Records that continues the guitarist’s exploration of windswept, distorted brand of guitar instrumentals. For the current jaunt, Earth is joined by fellow northwestern outfit and Sergeant House recording artist Helms Alee.
The Seattle-based power trio has delivered an adventurous mix of fuzzed-out guitar sludge, off-kilter melodic hooks and high-harmony vocals over the course of the band’s five full-length albums. Formed in 2007 when guitarist Ben Verellen (formerly a member of dirgy prog-punk outfit Harkonen and post-hardcore crew These Arms Are Snakes) teamed with bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Margullis (also a member of the acclaimed duo Lozen), the group was quickly signed to Hydra Head Records for the release of their debut album Night Terror the following year.
Taking cues from iconic heavy-music mavericks Melvins (who would later become tour partners with Helms Alee), tuneful alt-rock greats the Breeders and the dreamy vocals of shoegaze favorites Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins, the trio scored solid reviews with its creative take on riff-powered post punk. A second Hydra Head effort Weatherhead three years later further refined the band’s signature sound with Verellen’s howling balanced by the sweet counterpoint harmonies provided by James and Margullis.
After Hydra Head dissolved in 2012, the band would move to Sargeant House for two efforts in 2014: a split with like-minded act Young Widows and their third full-length Sleepwalking Sailors. By this point, the group’s stature had risen to where they were spoken of in the same breath as fellow purveyors of heaviness Torche and Big Business.
The band’s 2016 Stillicide was hailed as the trio’s most accessible yet while still not sacrificing any of it’s trademark sludge groove. Touring heavily behind that effort, it took some time for Helms Alee to return to the studio. Last month, the group released Noctiluca to another round of glowing reviews. Tuesday night’s show at the Great American gives fans of heavy music an excellent excuse to get out of the house on a weeknight.
Earth with Helms Alee
Tuesday, May 28, 8 p.m. $15-$17
Great American Music Hall