Published on June 23rd, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Dylan Carlson on “Pentastar: In the Style Of Demons”
In 1996, Dylan Carlson and a collective of musicians known as Earth released Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, a third full-length for Sub Pop, and an album now rightfully recognized as a landmark in the drone genre despite meeting with a generally ambivalent critical reception at the time.
Known as the band’s “rock” album, Pentastar followed debut LP Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version released in 1993, which arguably laid the foundation for modern drone or “ambient” metal, and the more melodic and subtly folk-flavored Phase 3: Thrones & Dominions.
Stripped to the bone and propelled by the minimalist, slow-motion funk of drummer Michael McDaniel, the album is bookended by two halves of a longer song—Introduction, which repeats the same molasses-thick guitar melody, tone growing slowly denser until your teeth buzz in your skull—and Coda Maestoso In F (Flat Minor), a collage of organ and guitar overdubs over the same relentlessly massive riff and climaxing in an epic guitar solo from Sean McElligott.
But it’s High Command and Tallahassee that define this record. The weight and tactility of Carlson’s tone riding over strung-out drums and Ian Dickson’s rumbling bass gets heads nodding and fingers clawing on imaginary guitar fretboards.
I don’t think repetition limits melody, and if it’s a good melody you want to hear it again
Elsewhere are the eerie guitar manipulation of Crooked Axis for String Quartet—which clears the runway for Tallahassee—and Charioteer (Temple Song), recalling the fed-back drone of previous work but with delicate acoustic and electric guitar melody, a kind of autistic mantra, a fascination. In Peace In Mississippi, Carlson cattle-dips Hendrix’s song in fuzz and drives it forward with a whip, before cutting off abruptly into the unsettling piano of Sonar And Depth Charge. And onto Coda, full circle, and silence.
Pentastar—which is apparently a reference to the Chrysler logo and acknowledgement of the band’s fifth CD—is a strange album. Strangely addictive, something that must be dusted off and spun every few months. Age never touches it—there’s a thrill of danger in the music, a sense that the riffs will steer you off the highway at full speed, foot clamped on the gas.
It’s drugged out, on the nod, yet animated with a weird, restless energy. It’s music played on the edge, redlining in slow motion.
And like every classic album, it gives up another secret every time you play it—a subtle overdub here, an unnoticed harmonic motif there, or a misheard or misunderstood lyric that suddenly reveals in itself a different interpretation.
With the album’s 20-year anniversary looming over the Barracuda’s hood, BNU talked to Dylan Carlson about recording the album, why he never listens to critics, and why Pentastar remains his favorite from that fruitful decade.
BNU: You recruited Mike Deming from a Massachusetts band called the Pernice Brothers to play organ, engineer, and record the album. You also had Sean McElligot on guitar and Michael McDaniel on drums. Can you tell me how you came together, and how the album came to be recorded?
Mike Deming also owned and ran the studio, he had recorded with some other bands as well, and he had worked with other bands on Sub Pop, so that was why we ended up there.
He was an amazing musician and engineer. The studio was in the old Colt firearms building in Hartford, Connecticut, now sadly developed, I believe, into dwellings.
At that time it still had a lot of leftover machinery and smelled of gun solvent everywhere. I met Sean and Mike through a mutual friend, and seeing them play in a Top 40s cover band that played outside of Seattle. They were both phenomenal musicians. Mike also did a lot of R&B session work.
What equipment did you select and what methodology did you apply to try to capture what you had in your head? Was it a frustrating or enjoyable experience?
I had an early Paul Reed Smith, the CE Bolt-on model if I remember correctly, courtesy of Sub Pop and the recording advance. The amp at the studio was a red Marshall JMP 100-watt head and two matching 4×12 cabinets, apparently owned by Ace Frehely at one point according to the studio folks.
I always like playing in the studio and it got me out of Seattle for a while [laughs].
The album Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars was recorded live. Was Pentastar tracked with you all in the same room or separately in booths? Which approach yields best results for you?
The amp was isolated, as it was a full stack dimed—turned all the way up. The basics were me and the drummer and then the rest overdubbed, if I remember right. I like doing “live” band basics and overdubbing extra bits, I guess.
I want to ask about the drums on Tallahassee. Michael is just dragging the beat or pulling time just that tiny bit which gives this song a real grooviness. Do you remember how that beat came up?
On bass and guitar was Ian Dickson from Anvil? How did that come about? What are your thoughts on Anvil: The Story of Anvil?
Um, wrong Ian Dickson. I wish, ha ha! The Ian Dickson that was on Pentastar was someone I was friends with from Olympia and who also worked at Sub Pop doing all their computer stuff. So… not from Anvil.
I think Anvil was awesome, and it was a great film, though.
Do you see the limitations—such as repetition—of drone provide a structure to explore or deconstruct melody? Obviously you love and are influenced by many different styles of music, so why do you choose the medium of slow music to express yourself?
I don’t think repetition limits melody, and if it’s a good melody you want to hear it again, at least I do [laughs]. Same with a good riff, and as for why I choose it or chose it, I just like it that way. There are plenty of bands that play fast.
The bright, iconic cover art (which I believe you designed) belies the fact you were going through a bleak period in your life around ‘96. I wonder, when you look back at this album, how much of a part the drugs influenced how it turned out? Were the ideas you had initially executed as you intended, or do you feel like your vision wasn’t fulfilled?
It could have been a better album if I’d been less dependent, but I wasn’t, and so it’s like most Earth records post-Earth 2 and pre-Hex, a bit incomplete, but it is what happened and that’s what resulted.
Pentastar came after Thrones & Dominions, which was drone that again played around with melody. Pentastar seems like a logical progression from that album, but with beats, but it seemed to confound music critics and it was not that well received at the time. How did you react to the negative reviews? Now the album has its own respected place in the Earth catalog, do you feel vindicated that people love it so much?
I learned early on that you shouldn’t believe your press, good or bad [laughs]. Just do your thing and if people like it, that’s a bonus, and if they don’t, you can keep going and they’ll find something else to like.
To quote the Sea Hags, “You’re only as good as your shittiest song.”
I think Pentastar was a good rock record, and I guess people didn’t want to rock anymore, and that’s the problem these days, everything is post-something and ironically detached.
Another lesson I learned early is that your vision will alter on its way to reality, usually in ways you cant envision
The biggest star of the music video you made for Tallahassee was the red 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. I think the rest of the video was you guys trying to act cooler than that car! Was it yours? What do you drive now? Was Pentastar intended as a soundtrack for cruising around?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t my car. We rented it from someone in Tacoma. I dig cars, but I haven’t had a driver’s license ever! I used to drive plenty without one, but eventually the laws got more punitive, so I need to get one now! I’m always in the back of a van on tour now or in airports.
All good rock is a soundtrack for driving.
Why did you pick Hendrix to cover, and why did you pick Peace In Mississippi and then cut it off like that? Was that a statement? Were you being ironic?
I am never ironic about rock music, and I picked it because I love Hendrix, and I love that song.
You reemerged, perhaps as a different person, to record Hex. Did anything on Pentastar inform how you approached Hex? Did you think: “I’m not going to do that again” or “I want to do that again but do it properly this time?”
Another lesson I learned early is that your vision will alter on its way to reality, usually in ways you cant envision, and often better than you imagined. And you need to be open to it.
Lastly, what do you think about Pentastar: in the Style of Demons now? Do you listen to it ever? If you could go back and do it again, how would it sound, and would you ever want to do that?
I like that record the most of my ’90s output generally. I don’t listen to Earth a whole lot, unless I’m relearning a song to put in the live set, or rearranging it, ha ha. But I like quite a few of the tunes on it.
If I did it over I would’ve spent more time on guitar overdubs perhaps, maybe made it less “murky” sounding, hired a real singer [laughs]. And had a better piano for Sonar and Depth Charge. It was an upright with a cracked soundboard.
But I don’t believe in trying to redo records or doing the same record again and again.