A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Not much, if yr a very literal-minded person, prone to lurk around the surface of things.
Except that they all intertwine in the work of Dylan Carlson, the mastermind behind drone-metal pioneers Earth.
Carlson’s music has a long history of being tethered to place, with Earth’s Hex: or Printing The Infernal Method simultaneously evoking gothic puritan New England, with its barn door hex signs, as well as the blasted desert scapes of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, with a little bit of William Blake thrown in, for good measure. Even Earth’s earliest material, like the infamous Earth 2, (which is really, REALLY good, if you haven’t heard it), seems to evoke imagery of the primordial Northwestern forests, if only by virtue of where they’re coming from.
With so much of Carlson’s music being rooted in Americana, i was more surprised than anybody to stumble upon a little-known side project, Drcarlsonalbion, which explores the intersection of British folklore, drone metal and witchcraft. If ever there was a fitting soundtrack for what Forestpunk is aiming for, it is this. Psychogeography, occultism, magick, folk and metal… the channeling of ancient wisdom through modern methods and technology.
La Strega And The Cunning Man In The Smoke was recorded as part of Southern Records’ Latitudes series, where bands were “encouraged acts to record “sessions”; that noble exercise in recording a small set of songs quickly and without fuss in the studio that acts as a snapshot of where a band or artist is on that particular day,” as stated in this feature for The Quietus. They then went on to call Latitudes “a strange hinterland between orthodox releases and live bootlegs they can be very good at distilling the essence of the band or artist.”
La Strega (which means witch in italian), is equal parts bootleg and document, recorded in London while Carlson was touring the UK visiting notorious faery sites. Turns out Carlson is a lifelong believer and scholar of the fae folk, and he was out collecting field recordings and writing songs (as well as writing the very informative Drcarlsonalbion blog). I didn’t know it was possible to become MORE obsessed with Carlson’s music, until finding out that one of Drcarlsonalbion’s albums is called Edward Kelley’s Blues, named after the infamous earless seer that channeled the Enochian documents for John Dee. It seems that all of our favorite things and obsessions are summoned in one place, in the work of DCA.
La Strega features 7 cover songs, and one original, that manages to condense several hundred years of British history into an hour. From the traditional “Reynardine”, about a werefox, to a cover of The Kinks‘ “Wicked Annabella” to Richard and Linda Thompson‘s version of “Night Comes In”, to PJ Harvey‘s “Last Living Rose”, we’ve got both the timeless and the contemporary covered, offering a time-lapsed flipbook through ages and epochs. In the process, it’s like all that’s manmade is swept clean, and we are left with the essence of the land itself. Stone circles and rolling hillsides; thickets and rocky beaches seemed wrapped up in these grooves. It’s like an aural archaeological dig, wrapped up in the ether and broadcast into yr cerebellum, reliving the history of this noble rock.
For this session, Carlson is joined by Jodie Cox on second guitar, and Teresa Colamonaco on snide and snarky lead vox. Being a session, there’s no post-production, just a document of an event. The lack of gloss and finish let’s Carlson’s person shine through. You can feel the fingers on the strings, can practically hear the click of cheap plastic pedals being activated. It serves as an interesting insight into the studiocraft of one of drone’s latter day masters, before the layers of patina and finish are added.
It’s interesting, and slightly convoluted, but having familiarity with the pure strains from which Carlson weaves. You can basically condense Drcarlsonalbion’s project into 3 main essential minerals: traditional British folklore, Northwestern grunge/drone/metal, and the landscape itself. If you perform the algebra, and cancel out the known variables, we are left with a pure but ineffable expression of the soul of each.
This can be seen most clearly on the only original on this record, “The Faery Round”, clocking in at an epic 13 1/2 minutes. It is a clear and lovely depiction of the long drawn out tone of Carlson’s guitar playing, but beneath that, there seems to be the essence of purple hillsides encoded in the shivering spaces. I had an interesting experience on the bus, in the warm bright sunshine of an April afternoon, of having an English sunset superimposed on the daytime. For a moment, i was transported. “The Faery Round” was living up to it’s name, acting as the aural equivalent of that fungal ring, taking you out of time and space.
Drcarlsonalbion proves to be a useful example of continuums. When i first started writing about music, hauntology was all the rage, with Mssrs. Fisher and Reynolds discussing the hardcore continuum, at great length. They were attempting to prove how acid, garage, grime, hardcore, jungle and drum ‘n bass was the same music, being made by the same people through the same channels, showing a gradual and unceasing darkening of electronic music.
From this theory, one can expand and expound, finding hundreds of continuums, which i describe as invisible threads or currents. In Drcarlsonalbion, we find paleological traces of pure, trve witchcraft, as well as the faded, burnt out 60s cinematic variety.
Ultimately, what says the most about La Strega is its subtitle, “The Cunning Man In The Smoke”. Originally, witches were known as “cunning men” or “cunning women”, “cunning folk”. They lived in the forest and brewed portions out of herbs, and were sought out for help more often than harm. It is my theory that the “witch hysteria” was drummed up by the Christians as another attempt at stomping out the Earth-based, or chthonic, religions. Christianity’s goal was to rule Nature, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1:26.
All of this because man lived in total terror of the Earth. Our existence could be snuffed out in a second, by a typhoon or a grizzly bear. Chaos reigns, and our mind exists, in part, to help alleviate that terror and helplessness.
And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that our powers of observation, which allowed us to take dominion over the Earth, by way of Science, allowed certain interested individuals to get filthy rich, along the way.
Let us not forget that the term occult means hidden, and that is part of what Christianity was hoping to stomp out. They wanted to eradicate the old teachings, the mysteries, making them punishable by (often excrutiating) death.
But here we still are. You tried to stamp us out, but we met in hidden groves and clearings and taverns and metal clubs. You tried to eradicate us, but you couldn’t. And now, it’s too late. The floodgates have been thrown open, and the plague of madness is upon us.
Lastly, Drcarlsonalbion, and much of Carlson’s work, is indicative of what i call the Atavistic Return, which is people returning to ancient wisdom through modern means. People have a need for ritual, ceremony and community, and they will get it, whether at a metal show, a rave, or by tripping in the forest. This tendency can be seen in recent trends in electronic music, which finds modern musicians turning their laptops and guitar pedals into primal drum circles, digeridoos and chanting monks.
More than anything, Drcarlsonalbion in general, and particularly La Strega proves an interesting behind-the-scenes look at some of the methods and interests of one of modern music’s most fascinating minds. It’s exquisite to hear Carlson’s unadorned tone, glacial and patient, which provides fresh appreciation of both heritage folklore and the powers of drone guitar.
In case you weren’t aware, and would like to read more ramblings over Dylan Carlson’s psychogeography, i wrote a long article on the subject for the latest issue of Wyrd Daze, where i discuss Drcarlsonalbion’s catalog, as well as Earth’s works.
Strega & The Cunning Man in the Smoke