Drone-metal pioneers Earth have always, despite playing decidedly within their genre, managed to develop their style enough to stay distinct and relevant with each release, from the stoner-friendly grunge of their early years to the desolate, quiet soundscapes of Hex to the dry, dusty rumbles of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull and on to the cool, arid and remote heights of the double-album Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light. Which is why it's such a disappointment that Primitive and Deadly, for all of its potential, is such a regression for the band.
How do I mean? Certainly there's promise of something sharper and more explosive than anything front-man Dylan Carlson's ever done in the past —"Even Hell Has Its Heroes" is as close to flat-out rock as Earth has ever come; including, as it does, dueling instruments and a few virtuosic guitar solos that demonstrate the kind of technical brilliance we've all come to associate with Carlson while adding just enough of a raw, energetic edge to keep Earth exciting—but it's not quite enough; the album feels like a retread in too many other ways. "Torn By The Fox Of The Crescent Moon" is eerily reminiscent of the twenty-year old "Ouroboros Is Broken", while "From The Zodiacal Light" might—sans the vocals—fit right back on TBMHITLS, it might even be mistaken for "Rise to Glory" if the listener was careless enough to overlook the very, very unwelcome vocals.
Though Earth once did incorporate a bit of mumbling from Carlson, and even from Kurt Cobain, it was never a pronounced part of any song. The lyrics were muttered near-nonsense unconcerned with eloquence. They didn't grasp, they just took a backseat and propped up the walls of sound and beautiful, dragging distortions. Contrast that with Mark Lannegan's entirely unwelcome, and quite frankly weak crooning; sounding here less like the portentous yowlings of a mad preacher and more like the bored mutterings of a senile geezer who's retired to Boca Raton. While Rabia Qazi does manage to integrate her vocals far better than Lannegan, they're still bland and slightly grating and ultimately a distraction.
See, the problem with elements like these is that Earth is a band that works by accretion, by the slow and steady building of its sonic elements. Very little is allowed to stand out, and for good reason. Carlson is a master of using drone and repetition to mask the myriad subtle, brilliant changes he slowly, imperceptibly slips into his music; instruments drift into the song and hover around the central bass or guitar or percussion like ghosts drawn to a fire or, maybe more appropriately, asteroids drawn to a planet. The drone is meant to lull listeners to complacency so that they don't notice the slow build; only when the song has finally built to its climax does it move out of the way, at which point the listener is jarred awake just in time for the crushing and now inescapable force of the song. There is the suggestion with "Even Hell Has Its Heroes" that Earth might, in fact, have found a way to paradoxically incorporate rapid shifts and the occasional electrical jolt into their drone, but it's a promise sadly unfulfilled by the rest of the album. It's not that Primitive and Deadly is bad Earth, even if the inclusion of vocals is ill-advised: if Earth hadn't already mastered this territory it'd be a game changer. The problem is that Earth has done this before, and done it better, and so should know better.