Drcarlsonalbion - La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke
Dylan Carlson has travelled a long, long way from Earth's 1993 release Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version. Back then, Carlson was the master of the drone and Earth 2 was a brutal experience that proved to be a massive influence on drone heirs-in-waiting Sunn O))). In the twenty years since Carlson has experienced serious drug problems, the infamy of being inextricably linked to the death of Kurt Cobain and not releasing any music between 1997 and 2005. When Earth did return in 2005 with Hex, they were a changed band. Gone for the most part were the heavy drones, replaced by clear and crisp – yet seemingly endlessly reverberating – guitar work from Carlson, influenced by country, blues and jazz, but probably most importantly influenced by place. Hex, The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull and Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I and II all have this dusty, ancient quality that makes you think of both America's Midwest but also of a biblical desert. Everything is parched, slow to unwind, sun-damaged...but that run of four records marked Carlson as one of the finest guitarists operating in any genre and marked Earth down as still being as powerful and exciting a band as they ever were.
Place is also a huge influence on Carlson's latest venture under the moniker Drcarlsonalbion. It turns out that he's fascinated by folk legends, fairy (or faery) faith and English "magick" and spends a huge amount of time in Britain tracing old tales of cunning-folk as part of a planned book/CD/vinyl/DVD project. Carlson's blog documenting his journeys is a fascinating read even if you don't have an interest in our island's folklore, and while he compiles his experiences he also records a few songs here and there, leading us to his most recent release La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke. It's 7 tracks – released as part of Southern Records' Latitudes series – reimagining traditional folk tales, with Carlson's lead guitar parts of course taking centre stage while he's joined by Jodie Cox on second guitar (there's no drums, so no Adrienne Davis) and beguiling vocals are provided on some of the tracks by Teresa Colamonaco.
For half the record, there's really no difference between Drcarlsonalbion and Earth: opening track 'La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke' details Carlson's otherworldly experiences in Camden Town on the site of a former witch's house ("la strega" is the Italian name for a witch), and while Colamonaco delightfully intones the names of some London landmarks, Carlson's guitar burns slowly across the track scorching everything in its wake; the chord progression is as slow and unwinding as ever and nothing ever really happens, but it's so lovely you hardly care. It's not all slow-mo though, as Carlson and co pick up the pace when it comes to the more recognisable covers on the record: there's a brisk rendition of The Kinks' 'Wicked Annabella' that's slightly pointless and out of place, then a version of 'Night Comes In' – made most famous by Richard and Linda Thompson – that does fit in with Carlson's usual style and tone, and there's a rather fine cover of PJ Harvey's 'Last Living Rose' to close off the album, with Colamonaco's cooing vocals taking it in a more folk direction than Polly's original but as the song references England it does seem to fit with the general themes of La Strega.
The record's finest moment, though, comes when Carlson is left to his own devices. 'The Faery Round', based on a piece of music by composer for Queen Elizabeth I, Anthony Holborne, is everything you could ever want from a Dylan Carlson track: twelve minutes of slow, chiming chord progressions and nuanced picking, reverberating endlessly, some well-placed drone yet everything is bright and defined with a hint of underlying menace – remember, fairy-folk can be extremely malevolent when the mood takes them. 'The Faery Round' is as perfect a piece of instrumental music as you're ever likely to hear.
The work of Drcarlsonalbion isn't the place I'd ever advise you to start if you wanted to listen to the best of Dylan Carlson (that'll always be the work he does with Earth) but La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke has some fine moments, with the opening trio of tracks being utterly captivating. When Carlson finally manages to compile his Wonders from the House of Albion project, there's no doubt it will be a completely fascinating piece of work, but in the meantime, this'll do fine.