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Earth and Pillars Returns to the Pale Blue Dot on “Earth II”

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Earth and Pillars have always made grand-scale music. This isn’t just to refer to architecture of the pieces, where song lengths routinely hover in the 15-20 minute mark and feature not only long stretches of repetition with small modular change but also a surfeit of ideas ebbing and flowing in great glacial motion. Neither is this to refer to the conceptual arch of the band, loosely themed around the cycle of the four elements juxtaposed against the seeming dichotomy of organicism versus constructivism, the World versus the Self, nature versus the human-conceived divine, and other such intertwined dualities. There is a deeper and more fundamental grandiosity to Earth and Pillars’ music that more concretely informs not just the necessity for progressive structures and massive song lengths but also reinforces the particular power of the conceptual arch to the group’s work, and that is the sheer sonic enormity of their songs.

The group has always employed guitar, bass, drums, synths and vocals and each release has felt like an enormous star-spanning map, drawing clearly from similar macrocosmic approaches to progressive black metal from groups like Darkspace and Wolves in the Throne Room. But so too has each record shown a particular growth in terms of their mix, giving each instrument more room, more definition, more body, so as to greater fill the sonic field and more ecstatically and compellingly push the edges of these songs far beyond the bounds of perspective, so that with proper headphones or sound system they absolutely engulf your world. Of their records, Earth II is the most successful at this effect, which at its peaks is absolutely breathtaking. To speak personally for a brief moment, I had to pause after each of the four tracks to more or less catch my breath, feeling psychically overwhelmed at the enormity and intensity of the work. I would pace, breath, pause, return, each song thrusting me out again not because they were jarring but because their potency was so high that there was no way in those earlier passes I could satisfactorily dive into the next track. There was too much on the mind, too many images and fields of color and geometric figures, too many gestures to resolve and relive. These songs are crammed with details and moments of exquisite beauty, largely eschewing direct and roaring second-wave inspired black metal for something closer to the previously mentioned Wolves in the Throne Room at their early and effervescently earth-worshipping peak.

This is largely due to the increased prominence of synths, largely replacing guitars as the driving melodic and harmonic force of the compositions. Their previous record, the cast-off Towards the Pillars, seems to have awakened something powerful within the group. That record was originally supposed to be brief synth-oriented sketches based off of pieces from Pillars II, not unlike the parallels between the records Celestial Lineage and Celestite. In the instance of Earth and Pillars, its growth from a casual side effort to a devoted EP to eventually a fully fledged synth-driven studio record, one tied to but not a direct continuation of the band’s overarching concept, served the primary purpose of these kinds of side ventures. The lessons learned there regarding the marriage of synth tones, their usage in creating vast space and support for more intriguing and starry harmonic language were well-learned; the songs of Earth II are not only the projects’ most powerful but also their most beautiful, feeling at times like the direct promised connection long teased between Romantic music and black metal. A secondary but still substantial benefit to the weight and power of this record is the addition of acoustic drums to the mix. The programmed drums were always composed by a drummer, so the parts themselves were never weak on previous records, but there is something to the air and skin and wood and metal of a drum kit, something that translates physically to the music, especially one themed around the natural world in juxtaposition to the constructivism of humanity. Certainly if placed side-by-side with their previous work the sonic difference wouldn’t amount to a great deal, but the little additions and the way it seems to push the other instruments the way only great drumming can marshall the forces feels particularly empowering on these pieces.

And while many points of comparison can be made between this record and the works of others, even this band and others, it can’t be stated enough that this ultimately falls short of describing the immense power of Earth II as a singular record as well as the third in a to-be-completed four-record arc. This is not only the single best black metal record I have heard this year but one of the very best of recent memory in a world absolutely crammed to the gills with jaw-dropping releases. Black metal as a genre loves to play at the cinematic and world-engrossing, and by and large theatricality is often a good vehicle for cracking songs and compelling records even if the artist perhaps falls a bit short of the mark, but Earth II in specific and Earth and Pillars in general are one of the groups that manage to achieve that sought-after connection. They do not do so with ease; you can almost feel, almost smell, the sweat dripping from these tracks, almost see the figures of its performers hunched over, eyes clenched tight, squeezing notes out like they are dying, in ecstasy, dying. There is an intensity to these pieces both singularly and in sequence with one another that defies both expectation and reason, managing to crescendo into that near-theological exultation and feeling of bright stellar-spiritual release that truly great black metal strives for.

It is not enough to sing the praises of this record either. We must remind ourselves that this is the third in a four-part series, and that while it is the best so far they each in turn have been “the best so far.” The bar is raised substantially for the concluding Pillars II as a stand-alone record, but unless that album truly falls to bits in a completely out of character way, Earth and Pillars have on their hands a truly special and tightly-bound large-scale black metal work, a multi-album meta-symphonic structure comprised of four smaller symphonically-structured works. This conceptual thrust, one which I chose deliberately not to dive into textually for this review both to focus more centrally on the absolutely enormous and swelling power of the pure music but also to save it for another time when those topics can be delved into more respectfully and fully, would be perhaps pretentious but definitely at least intriguing in almost any hands. With music as powerful as these first three installments, however, the group has one that might live fully up to the hype, self-liberating themselves from the tedious and ultimately puerile metrics of year-end lists and genre-spanning lists for that more prideful designation of “special album,” one that seems irresponsible and offensively dimwitted to place in more vulgar space.

Certainly this sounds like a pretentious thing to say about any album, let alone a brand new one. But wait till you hear it. Like the seemingly immediate rise to breathless favor groups like Krallice, Ash Borer and Bell Witch have attained over the past few years, Earth and Pillars deserves this critical attention. Further, though they’ve deserved this kind of notice before, Earth II is their best so far and a remarkable feat of black metal even if it were never bound up in a larger-scale work.

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