Home > Metal > Earth vs. Tinariwen: Soundtracks for a Painful World

Earth vs. Tinariwen: Soundtracks for a Painful World

Earth - "Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light" (Southern Lord, 2011)

The Great Recession and its continuing aftershocks have claimed another casualty recently: my blog. Who has time to listen to music and write about it when you only have a couple of hours to sleep between shifts at work? Today, Labor Day, is a good time to jump back into Pitch Black Brigade because it is a day without work – at least without the kind of labor that pays.

To celebrate the mighty PBB’s return, I plan to do something a little different; I am going to revisit a record I have already reviewed – Earth’s “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, I” (Southern Lord Recordings, 2011) – and pair it with a new and unusual disc – Tinariwen’s “Imidiwan: Companions” (World Village, 2009). I decided to revisit Earth’s record because they are playing at the Earl in East Atlanta next Sunday, September 13th. The title of today’s post is a little misleading, though. I am not going to pit Earth against Tinariwen in a Texas Cage Match (a reference to 1970s pro wrestling and not the Octagon©). Instead I will compare and contrast the two albums because Earth cited Tinariwen as an influence on “Angels of Darkness.”

Some background first. Earth crawled from the speaker-melting, primordial ooze around Olympia, Washington in 1990. At one time they were members of the immortal and outrageous Sub Pop empire and now they serve as one of the pillars of the mighty Southern Lord Recordings. What type of music do they play? Well, Earth created drone metal twenty some odd years ago. They fused the sludge-like doom style of The Melvins with the minimalism of early Black Sabbath riffs and then slowed the tempos to a standstill. In the years since the band’s founding, the personnel has changed frequently but Earth has always played long songs with slow tempos. As I mentioned in my earlier review (which you can read here), Earth’s tempos are slow, really slow – they are glacial, as in the ice ages came and went at a faster rate. Regardless of which permutation of the band you listen to Earth specializes in contemplative songs shot through with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and disintegration.

Tinariwen - "Imidiwan: Companions" (World Village, 2009)

On the other hand, Tinariwen are a Tuareg band, a band from Saharan African. The Tuaregs are nomads from the Sahara desert in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Libya. Drought and war, however, have forced them to abandon their nomadic ways and settle into urban areas. Tinariwen’s name translates into “empty places” and the music they play is called “Tishoumaren” or the “music of the unemployed.” At various times their music has been outlawed in Algeria and Mali because they champion the rights of nomadic people suffering under oppressive, repressive and distant – in geographic terms – regimes. Western music critics usually peg Tinariwen as “desert blues” because they play cycling and circular guitar-based riffs in which minimal additions and subtractions propel the songs along. I think this label is a disservice to the band and to the musical style, because it makes it sound like they heard John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf and decided, “let’s play American blues.” Their music is more organic and homegrown than that. Now, I will concede that Tinariwen are like the blues because they are the soundtrack of a subjected people just like the blues use to be before Cracker beatniks and hippies discovered it in the 1960s.

Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I

There is no easy way to enter an Earth album. You can’t dip your toes in and slowly work you way through it regardless of whether the band was intent on tube blowing feedback and overtones or jazzy Americana sound sculptures. It’s has to be all or nothing – total immersion with full dedication – and “Angels of Light, Demons of Darkness I” is no exception. The first thing that strikes you about Angels is the fact that this not disposable, mass produced music. This album requires commitment, a commitment of time and effort, and like all good art you are rewarded for it as the dense but torpid songs unfurl at a contemplative but disturbing pace.

Earth – “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I

Songs like “Angels of Darkness” – all twenty gut-wrenching minutes of it – have a sense of space built into them. They are songs where slight variations of a theme produce tectonic shifts in the mood and momentum of the song.

Imidiwan: Companions

“Imidiwan” came out the year before Earth’s latest offering and Earth’s Dylan Carlson cited Tinariwen as an influence on “Angels of Darkness.” Tinariwen drone too, but they drone in a less self-conscious way than Earth. Their songs like “Tahiut In” feature languid and loping guitar riffs that inevitably circle back to a chorus. The songs on “Imidiwan” are more rhythmic but less percussive than Earth.

Tinariwen – “Tahiut In

Tinariwen always sounds like a group of friends getting together to play on a Saturday night. Although there are traces of sadness and outrage in the music, there is also an overwhelming feeling of communal healing in the music, a quality of finding strength in and through the music. Earth is saturated with a bleak darkness that Tinariwen lacks. I am convinced the difference comes from the difference in tempos and because there are no vocals on “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I.” The backing vocals on “Imidiwan” and all of Tinariwen’s records lend a hopeful almost joyous quality to the song regardless of the subject matter. The Tinariwen platter also lacks the drama of the Earth disc. Now, honestly, there is very little drama in Earth songs but it always seems to be lurking or at least happening off camera, if you will.

We are living in painful times – times that are painful economically, culturally and psychologically. This pain is evident in music from Saharan Africa and in Washington state even if the bands approaches to it differ.

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