Earth / Stebmo / Ko-Guma-Za, 17-04-09, Birmingham, UK

Friday, May 01 2009 @ 01:00 AM PDT

Contributed by: drengskap

Tonight’s opening act is a band called Ko-Guma-Za – this is evidently their first gig through a big PA, so they are something of an unknown quantity, although their two guitarists were formerly in Wolves Of Greece and they participated in Glen Branca’s orchestra in 2007 and 2008. With the addition of drums, their instrumental set comes over like a post-rock blend of Sonic Youth and Lungfish – it’s a pretty good fit with what will come later.

Stebmo is the solo project of Earth’s keyboard player Steve Moore, who’s assisted tonight by bassist Don McGreevy sitting in on drums. Stebmo’s MySpace page characterises their music as ‘Jazz / Dub / Gospel’, and to judge from this performance, the first among these is jazz – it’s certainly not hard to see where Earth’s recent jazz leanings have come from. Now, I normally run a mile from anything that smells like jazz, but Steve and Don, playing hookey from their day jobs, are so obviously having a great time that it’s impossible not to be infected by their urbanity and good humour. Stebmo’s set includes a cover of John Coltrane’s ’26-2’, and probably a load of other stuff that a jazz buff would recognise, but not me. Stebmo’s debut album is out now.

And so to Earth. I have vivid memories of my first encounter with the music of Earth. Way back in the early 90s, I was listening to a lot of Seattle bands, as was the fashion at the time. From somewhere or other, I don’t recall where, I got hold of a Sub Pop promo video entitled Sup Pop Video Network Program II. There was a whole load of cool shit on that tape – Big Chief, The Reverend Horton Heat, Mudhoney, The Dwarves – and it also had a great cover by the cartoonist Peter Bagge of Hate! renown. But easily the strangest and most memorable video was for a three-minute excerpt of Earth’s track ‘Ouroboros Is Broken’, from their 1991 debut release Extra-Capsular Extraction.

The band didn’t appear in the video at all – instead, the song’s impossibly slow, doomy riff churned out behind black and white stock footage of female nudists on horseback (!), intercut with gruesome images of chest surgery. Yeah, you can bet that sucker never got played on MTV…  I just checked out YouTube too, and sadly that video isn’t there, so if you want to see it, you’ll just have to come over to my place – I still have that old video tape, and it plays OK, though the cover suffered from a Pernod spillage some years ago. Seriously though, that clip would be an excellent bonus to include on some future Earth release, if Sub Pop could be persuaded to kick it loose.

Since those grungy days of yore, Earth’s journey has taken some strange and twisted paths, from the pioneering drone doom of the first two albums through the sleazy stoner grooves of 1995’s Pentastar: In The Style Of Demons (which is still my favourite Earth album) to the stripped-down desert rock of the 2005 comeback album Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method and the jazzy inflections of the last album, 2008’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull. There’s no new album to promote on this year’s tour, other than the vinyl edition of The Bees Made Honey…, but 2009 marks Earth’s 20th anniversary (‘Twenty Years Gone’, as the commemorative T-shirt puts it), and that seems like a good enough reason to be renewing my acquaintance with Dylan Carlson’s drone-child.

Earth open their set with three songs from The Bees Made Honey…, namely ‘Omen And Portents II: Carrion Crow’, ‘Engine Of Ruin’ and ‘Hung On The Moon’. Dylan is unusually talkative between songs, explaining that ‘Engine Of Ruin’ is inspired by his erstwhile love for ‘the ills of mash’. At around this point, though, a cute little rock chick gives me a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton, and I get kind of distracted for a while. Then Skeleton Girl’s boyfriend comes back, and I figure I'd better pay more attention to the band. Which is no great hardship – this is the fourth time I've seen Earth play now, and probably the best. Don McGreevy throws shapes with his huge bass, Steve Moore (who’s beginning to resemble Phineas from the Freak Brothers) takes time out from keyboard duties to blow his trombone, Adrienne Davies keeps time as slowly and surely as the progression of the seasons, and at the centre of it all, Dylan Carlson pursues his love affair with the electric guitar. All in all, Earth’s engine is running smoothly tonight, and they sound majestic. Twenty years gone – damn, it seems like the blink of an eye.