Old Earth: four-part opus doesn’t quite satisfy as jazz / death metal chamber music piece

Ehnahre, Old Earth, Crucial Blast, CD CBR99 (2011)

Ehnahre are new to me but this trio from Boston, Massachusetts, has been active since 2008 when they released their debut full-length album. These guys play an unstructured and doom-influenced style of death metal that’s very close to heavy improv jazz. “Old Earth” is the group’s third album and is based on a short essay by 20th century Irish avant-garde writer Samuel Beckett. The album consists of one piece broken up into four tracks or movements and by that structure derives as much of its inspiration from forms of classical and chamber music as it does from jazz, doom, hardcore and death metal. Guest musicians include trumpet players Greg Kelley and Forbes Graham, and the ever-trusty eminence grise studio engineer and sometime musician James Plotkin turns up on mastering duties. The guys sometimes come across as sounding a bit like Japan’s slow-burning doomsters Corrupted mixed in with some of their more extreme jazz / improv / metal brethren like Boredoms, Fushitsusha and Ruins.

After a warm-up introduction which includes something that sounds like a distant radio recording of a singer followed by a forlorn piano melody, the threesome play some very quiet guitar and noodle about for several minutes. At the half-way point, the track finally explodes into some fiery spitfire jazz death metal separated by passages of sulky guitar meditations. A haggard death metal vocal yells out lyrics based on the Beckett text while bass guitar surges forward on long booming drone, drums keep busy on fast rhythms and guitars either follow the bass guitar.

The second movement is a mood piece that privileges a chamber music style with the use of double bass as a solo instrument in parts. The clear production on this track underlines the decision to play the track as an acoustic piece. With the solo double bass followed by solo electric guitar, the track appears disjointed and the momentum built up by the first movement is lost. Late in the track, Kelley and Graham join in on trumpets but their performance is very subsidiary to the lead guitar and listeners could query whether the guest musicians are really needed at all.

Doomy death metal credibility is regained in the third movement but at this point I wonder why Ehnahre risked doing a long second piece that takes away all the energy and aggression of the first movement only to have to claw it all back in the third. By the time we reach Track 3, we are two-thirds of the way through the album. After a short, edgy piece marked by stealthy rhythm, the fourth movement comes as a dive into an existential inferno with the main vocalist screaming in torment.

This is an interesting album but the music is very uneven: the first two movements are long, each well over ten minutes, while the last two pieces fit entirely into the running-time of Track 1. You’d normally expect the third movement to be very important because in a four-movement work, the third must build on the efforts of the previous two movements in intensity and tension to a gut-wrenching climax; the fourth movement deals with the climax itself and the consequences that follow, and then it would just tidy all the loose ends and clean up the splatter on the floor and walls. We don’t get anything of the sort here on “Old Earth”. The flow of tension and energy across the album is uneven: the first movement did well in building up that tension but the second track lost it. This means that the third track has the unenviable job of performing its traditional function plus pick up that tension and conflict in the space of five minutes! “Old Earth” ends up being a lesser album than it could have been. There is not one God-Almighty tension-releasing pyrotechnics display anywhere here: the recording is more or less low-key throughout. Your listening experience will be an intriguing one at times but it’ll also be frustrating.

As a metal album, “Old Earth” certainly proves there’s plenty of life in doom and death metal when they come into contact with avant-garde jazz. It’s a bit of a shame though that Ehnahre seem too enamoured with the idea of playing with the structure of the music to upset expectations of how music builds up to a climax and then comes down, and somewhere in the middle lets go of some tension before climbing up again. Sometimes there are things you just should not deconstruct just for the hell of it, even with unstructured and out-there music.

Contact: Crucial Blast Recordings


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