Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method
Earth went through a period of silence in the late '90s and early '00s, after releasing their fourth album, Pentastar: In The Style of Demons. When Hex came out it had been nine years since Pentastar, and although it was radically different from what Earth had originally come up with, in the grand scheme of the discography it fit right in. Earth's music crawled forth from their primordial 1991 EP Extra-Capsular Extraction and evolved into 2008's The Bees Made Honey in The Lion's Skull so smoothly that each album is like an intermediate fossil, with clear evidence of what the band had once been, and what it would become.
Hex could be interpreted as Americana, owing in no small measure to the works of Ennio Morricone, the Italian composer. Morricone's original soundtracks to films like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West are cemented in the American psyche as the sounds of the old west, and Hex draws on those associations heavily while keeping a respectful distance. The cover art is a faded, black and white photograph of a massive barn. It's a simple and powerful image. In front, barely noticeable, is a woman holding the harness of a horse. I think the choice of art is a bit strange, only because for me Hex evokes images of landscapes, not people or man-made structures. To be fair, the barn and yard in the photograph do appear to be the symbolic edge, the very limit, of civilization, and maybe that is the intent. The barn nearly takes up the entire image, obscuring the miles of empty grass fields that obviously surround it. From the woman's perspective, the barn is the only thing protecting her from bleak, grey, yawning wilderness.
The album art and musical influences aren't the only clues to interpreting lyric-less music; there are also the titles of each song. Hex appears in a fearsome light now, with song names that wouldn't be out of place as chapters in a Kafka novel*. There seems to be an eerie, sinister story here, but details are left to the imagination. The concept of exploring (or being abandoned in) unfamiliar territory is central, and the focus is on the setting, the concept of "where", almost to the point that it becomes a force or entity.
1. Mirage (1:45)
2. Land Of Some Other Order (7:18)
3. The Dire And Ever Circling Wolves (7:34)
4. Left In The Desert (1:13)
5. Lens Of Unrectified Night (7:56)
6. An Inquest Concerning Teeth (5:16)
7. Raiford (The Felon Wind) (7:21)
8. The Dry Lake (3:21)
9. Tethered To The Polestar (4:42)
Without hearing the album, the subject matter appears to be quite grim, and the music does reflect this, but not overtly. The instrumentation is mostly snare drum, light cymbal tapping, and the honeyed chime of the Fender Telecaster, played slowly and cautiously. Chords buzz, shimmer, and melt; their hum is always present, permeating like background radiation. The music is simple on the surface, but the true pleasure in listening is found below that, in the resonating artifacts. There is no build or release of tension, so the album can be seen either as either constantly tense or constantly relaxed, depending on how closely you are paying attention. It's like a music box spring reaching the end of its winding, but never quite stopping. Despite its gentle, wary pace and uncomplicated structures, Hex is not an ambient album. The details are intricate and delicate, though almost certainly accidental, and a careful ear is needed to fully take the album in.
Hex, beautiful as it is, was just another step in Earth's growth, though it seems as if Dylan Carlson and the rest of the band have reached a plateau. The album Hibernaculum was done in 2007, and had four tracks, three of which were older Earth songs remade in the Hex dialect. The next year saw the release of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull, an original, Hex-like creation that was not nearly so barren and cheerless. Still, it wasn't so different either.
Although Carlson took a bold step in moving what could have been considered a metal band to something that almost sounds like country music, Hex and Bees... were very well-received, and hardly polarized the fanbase at all. In fact, Hex is often considered their best work. I would certainly say it's their most immersive.
*Many of the song titles are, in fact, taken from Blood Meridian, a book by Cormac McCarthy.
Earth - Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method - 2005 - Southern Lord