When Dylan Carlson released Earth 2 in 1993, many people thought it was a joke. Carlson was signed to Sub Pop, arguably the biggest indie label at the time. He was friends with Kurt Cobain, who played on Earth's 1991 debut, Extra-Capsular Extractions. That record was recognizably "metal," albeit tweaked; there were (programmed) drums, howling vocals and riffs.

Earth 2 was subtitled Special Low-Frequency Version, and it didn't lie. The record is nearly all low frequency, a molten mass of guitar/bass noise, more like a post-nuclear detonation, than, say, Sabbath. There were still riffs, though, played with such crushing slowness that they hovered on the edge of being riffs at all. "Teeth of the Lion Rule the Divine" oozed over 27 minutes, fulfilling Carlson's dreams of a metal where Slayer and the academic minimalism of La Monte Young were a two-brained Steve Martin.

It was as if the history of "heavy" music had been smelted down. Carlson made a few more Earth albums, including 1996's underrated Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, which included both prepared piano and a cover shot of a lime-green muscle car, in case you doubted where his divided sympathies actually lay. Then he disappeared in a miasma of drugs and financial difficulties.

But a funny thing happened on the way to novelty obscurity. As the 20th century rolled to a close, metalheads around the world began to tap into Earth's doom mainline. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson formed Sunn O))), named after Carlson's preferred brand of amp, as an explicit Earth tribute band. Japan's Boris released Absolutego, which Carlson described as "the soundtrack to two slugs fucking," a record so slow and heavy it's nearly static. In the U.S., Absolutego was released on O'Malley and Anderson's Southern Lord label, which has become the nexus for the international network of like-minded weirdos out to make the lowest, grungiest, most comically doom-laden metal record ever.

Sunn O))) is arguably the most popular and most well-known. Over the course of six albums, the O'Malley/Anderson duo has gone from a crispy, blackened version of Earth's toxic sludge to a more nuanced version of same. Its most recent album, Black One, features contributions from both experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi and former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar. The basic attack remains the same: long, oppressive stretches of tunneling drone cut with snarling, pained vocals. Sunn O))) doesn't evolve so much as deepen and darken. Live, it produces a subsonic rumble to tickle the little hairs in your intestines; audiences trance out as much as bang heads.

All of this talk of drones and minimalism and hook-ups with the international noise underground has suddenly made metal much more palatable to the chin-stroking crowd. The Wire ran a primer to "subterranean metal" last year that was basically an extended version of the Southern Lord catalog. Swedish black-metaler Abruptum, a band that was initially fronted by a midget named It who claimed to be the fount of all evil and cut and electrocuted himself in the studio, is now favorably compared to au courant electronic musicians such as Christian Fennesz.

Southern Lord itself is a bit like the Def Jux of the alt-metal world, alternating between embracing its Hessian heritage and befouling the academy. It keeps things in the gutter by indulging in heavy amounts of "metal humor," in O'Malley's words. Some of the vocals for Black One were recorded in a coffin, for instance, and live, Sunn O))) dons "grimrobes" as well as indulging in copious amounts of dry ice. As long as the two don't cut their hair, everything should be OK. And they're still devoted to the twin metal virtues of creeping audiences out and cathartic release.

Nowhere are both virtues so readily apparent as on the new album by O'Malley's other band, Khanate. Capture and Release is just two tracks, but its 43:16 feels like a fucking eternity. The first two Khanate albums, 2001's Khanate and 2003's Things Viral, fused the sloth's pace of doom metal with the linebacker crunch of early Swans. The result was agonizing: drums that fell like hammers, guitars that seemed to clang on the hour, bass like a colonoscopy. It was almost too much, about as oppressive as music could get.

Capture and Release is, if anything, even worse. The band is keyed to Tim Wyskida, who skitters around his drum kit like a rat before dropping one leveling boom, often delivered when you least expect it. The only constant presence is the sine-wave rumble of James Plotkin's bass, and when the band comes down hard on one crushing note it's more terrifying than pleasurable. The band's seasick, tidal trawls are closer to perverted jazz, with a shrieking guy breathing hot in your ear about how nice it is to have you trussed up like a Christmas ham in his basement. In its disturbed, exploitative guts, you'll find one of the best albums of the year. Certainly it's the most harrowing.

So leave it to the originator to provide the soothing relief – well, kind of. Having righted himself and been urged out of retirement by his ugly children, Dylan Carlson took up the Earth mantle again in 2002. The first result was this year's Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword. Opener "Dissolution III" is a previously released chunk of live, strangled guitar, like if avant-gardener Derek Bailey suddenly developed a taste for stabbing death-metal riffs. The title track is the real meat, an hourlong improvisation with Adrienne Davies providing rocking-horse backing on drums. Carlson's positively wanking, though his dynamics suggest cave-man repetition more than Guitar Center tech. At its best, Sword is hypnotic and crude like prime Crazy Horse.

Carlson's other album from this year, Hex: or Printing in the Infernal Method, retains the primal, um, earthiness of Earth's earliest work, but is easily the most listenable thing (for the potential listener who doesn't smoke a dime's worth a day) that he has ever put his name to. The instrumental palette now includes bass, drums, brass and bells. Carlson's decaying riffs and gothic slide guitar owe more to Ry Cooder's score for Paris, Texas than Black Sabbath. Parts are even pretty, if tinged with an American Gothic creepiness. Hex would make a perfect soundtrack to a documentary about the Dust Bowl, or for getting wasted in a parking lot.


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