Old Earth (Crucial Blast)
by Phil Freeman
I’ve admired Boston’s Ehnahre for a while now; I reviewed their last album, Taming the Cannibals, for this site in 2010. Their brand of metal is dissonant, almost detuned at times. Guitarist John Carchia and bassist Ryan McGuire drag out their doomy riffs like laborers consumed by an almost existential exhaustion. Drummer Ricardo Donoso combines a thundering attack on snare and toms with a crashing, but still somehow delicate and creepy, use of cymbals and hi-hats. The pieces abandon conventional rock structure in favor of a more jazz/improv-derived praxis: Carchia and McGuire frequently reject the usual rock/metal method of riffing in unison, choosing instead to play countermelodies against each other as Donoso erupts behind them.
This album consists of four tracks, two long ones up front (13:35, 10:47) followed by two shorter ones (5:09, 7:54), simply titled “Old Earth” parts I through IV. The lyrics, heard in Parts I, III and IV, are derived from a Samuel Beckett monologue of the same name (read it here). They’re delivered in an anguished howl, with occasional guttural death metal growls, that seems to me to be precisely the opposite of the voice implied by Beckett’s prose style, which I always read (in my head) as a monotone hovering between despair and resignation. Similarly, the music, which is extremely active and demands near-total engagement from the listener—it’s absolutely impossible to relegate an Ehnahre album to background noise—doesn’t feel like the kind of thing I’d use to soundtrack a Beckett monologue. To me, his work goes better with the music of Morton Feldman, with whom he collaborated on the opera Neither in 1977.
But perhaps it’s best to abandon thoughts of what this could be but isn’t, and discuss what it is. As Ehnahre records go, this one is slightly more concise and unified than Taming the Cannibals, though it still moves through definite stages on its journey. Where that album’s moods were kept more separate because it was a collection of discrete pieces, this one offers four variations on a single general vibe or concept. The only exception is Part II, which is entirely instrumental and features McGuire adding keyboards and electronic sound effects to the mix, as well as really beautiful bowed upright bass and some long trumpet tones in the background from guests Greg Kelley (who’s worked with the band before) and Forbes Graham. But all four pieces are seamlessly linked, so the album is best heard as a single 37-minute work which begins with quiet drones, room sound and amplifier buzz (it’s nearly four minutes before the first guitar chord is heard) and proceeds through stark, almost Khanate-like doom; the avant-garde post-rock improv of Part II; jagged, assaultive black metal-ish noise rock not unlike the work of Krallice; and finally concludes with deep, rumbling chords reminiscent of Sunn O))). And as a single work, it’s both mesmerizing and beautiful. Even at their most aggressive, Ehnahre never seek to overpower the listener, or bludgeon the audience into submission—even as they deploy traditional metal tools (volume, distortion, dissonance, speed) which can be used to alienate the unprepared, they’re always inviting you into their world, never trying to push you away. In a way, their work is like Richard Serra‘s gigantic, rusted iron sculptures: Intimidating from a distance, when you walk inside, and let your fingertips graze the massive plates, you feel sheltered, not threatened. Or like the way Samuel Beckett‘s outwardly despairing, fatalistic narrators (Molloy, Malone, et al.) wind up making the reader feel much more alive, and aware of every nuance of existence. Hey, wait a minute…I see what they did there…
Listen to “Old Earth I” now: