Earth are, if not the greatest band on their namesake orb, at least greatest of all the other groups with monikers derived from the planets—as well as that fiery star that gives us sustenance and melanoma with equanimity. Whether the Seattle-based band are superior to Gustav Holst's The Planets, I'll leave to more learned critics. But it's safe to say that ol' Gus never gave anyone a bad case of tinnitus, dude.
Led by guitarist Dylan Carlson, Earth began shifting tectonic plates in 1990, inspired by the Melvins' Bullhead and the groaning intro to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," which they extended and distended to grotesque proportions on their ambient-metal masterpiece Earth 2: Special Low- Frequency Version, a monolithic monument to monotony that spawned the drone-doom movement. Appropriate, since Earth lifted their moniker from Black Sabbath's original name. (Earth, in turn, inspired their own tribute band, the highly lauded Sunn O))).) With Earth 2, Carlson initiated a new kind of sonic extremism, a monomaniacal implosion of rock's usual dynamics.
Earth are possibly the only metal band who could merit a remix album—2005's Legacy of Dissolution—featuring contributions from decidedly nonmetal artists like Autechre and Jim O'Rourke. The late, sainted Kurt Cobain was an Earth fan, and he loaned grim croaks to "A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge Part 2" off their 1991 Extra- Capsular Extraction EP.
After a nine-year hiatus, Earth resumed orbiting in 2005 with Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method. Heralding a new approach, the album finds Earth letting some air into their trademark dank density. Hex evokes the poignant desolation and stark moroseness of Angelo Badalamenti's scores for David Lynch, but with more gravitas. The prevalent tempo is a solemn trudge, the prevailing tone languorous menace. Chords hover in the air and decay and cloud your head with a lifetime's worth of lingering regret.
Earth's 2008 full-length, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull, hones Hex's style (which was inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) but instills a muted optimism into the sound.
But enough core contemplating. Let's see how Earth stack up against their planetary peers.
Mercury: Mercury Rev used to be among the world's greatest rock bands, circa Yerself Is Steam and Boces. But they've been steadily declining since 1998's Deserter's Songs, as their mad psychedelic firepower has downshifted into maudlin, treacly soft rock. But at their early-'90s peak, Mercury Rev could've stood up to the mighty Earth. Now, even with Earth's mellowing out, it's no contest.
Venus: The competition is weak: Mean Venus (bog-standard hard rock), Closer to Venus ('80s anglophile rock from L.A.), Leaving Venus (mediocre indie rock from North Carolina). If songs counted in this contest, the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" would be a worthy challenger—but, alas, songs do not count. Let's not even talk about Wings' Venus and Mars.
Earth: Syracuse, New York, metalcore band Earth Crisis and Seattle's Book of Black Earth certainly deliver the chunky heaviness, but waste their efforts (and our patience) with ugly, bombastic vocals. Earth, meanwhile, level mountains without a word and, on their two latest albums, inspire inner peace with an elongated guitar twang. Zen, motherfuckers. Learn about it.
Mars: The Mars Volta put up a good fight with their extravagant prog-rock convolutions and vocal acrobatics, but Earth communicate more effectively and move you more profoundly with a few notes than do the Mars Volta with 791. Less is more FTW, again. Mouse on Mars have issued several fantastic releases of eccentric, electronic music, but their scattershot track record can't hang with Earth's granite legacy. What about Thirty Seconds to Mars, you ask? Get the fuck outta here with that heinous Jared Leto vanity project.
Jupiter: This mighty planet is represented by West Hollywood singer-songwriter Jupiter Sunrise, aka Mark Malik Houlihan. His conventional folk rock is accomplished but wholly mundane compared to Earth's latter-era holy-minimalist desolation blues. Research for this story also turned up a Norwegian ensemble going by Jupiter who create pleasant, Medeski Martin & Wood–style jazz funk. Earth win in a landslide.
Saturn: Ex–Rain Parade guitarist Steven Roback led Viva Saturn, an understatedly psychedelic rock band in the late '80s/early '90s. Only the most obsessive psych follower still cares about Viva Saturn's meager output, as groovy as it (sometimes) was. Earth run rings around 'em—albeit slowly.
Neptune: Crazy—a career's worth of serious music archaeology and I'd never heard of the Boston band Neptune, which started in 1994, until I started researching this story. But their sound is pretty interesting: abrasive spaz rock played on instruments made out of discarded items. They generate plenty of fire and friction, like This Heat, but with more restless song structures. It's almost the polar opposite of Earth, but it's great.
Sun: It might be sacrilege to rate Earth above jazz legend Sun Ra, but Sun Ra was not really human, so let's arbitrarily disqualify him. And Sun City Girls are too inconsistent to knock Earth off their axis.
Advantage: Earth. Eat their dust.