I know it’s utterly blasphemous to suggest in underground circles, but my first point of entry when listening to Dylan Carlson’s new “Conquistador,” the title track to a series of brain-melting epics for distorted guitar, was not Herzog’s Aguirre but Neil Young. Not the commercial Young, mind you, or he of the Crosby, Stills & Nash association, but the Young of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. On the Dead Man score, Young eschewed melody and hooks for an exploration of a distorted guitar’s textures, undercurrents and nuances. (Think of it as grunge minimalism.) It was spooky, evocative, and perfectly fit Jarmusch’s brilliant death narrative. Well, Carlson expands infinitely on that template on Conquistador, out this Friday on Sargeant House, and while it would be fair to say the Wild West of Young’s Dead Man is a kind of vague predecessor to the unnamed Spanish plains of Carlson’s first solo record proper, it’s also reductive.
Like Carlson’s best work – I’m thinking mostly of Earth 2 – the compositions on Conquistador are writ large and are kind to those who are patient in how they unfurl their leaves; you will rarely hear a long-form guitar drone or series of repeating figures sound as punishing or as sonicly rewarding.
(The Young comparison is apt, though, because both men, for a time, circled in Kurt Cobain’s orbit – Young as a forefather of grunge, for lack of a less preening term, and a provider of blueprints, and Cobain, longtime friend of Carlson, as a guest guitarist on the first Earth EP. But there, the similarities end. So be it.)
The opening of the wonderfully menacing fourth track, “Scorpions In Their Mouths,” transforms tape hiss into bees in a bonnet, and noted baritone- and slide-guitarist Emma Ruth Rundle does some interesting work here and there. But the real star of the show is Carlson. On “Scorpions,” as elsewhere, he builds heat through repetition – and it is hot! Here, it’s not the structuralist implications of gradually evolving but the pay-off of crashing into a wall of power-chord guitars after plodding/plotting along, lulled into submission, with spare figures. Ghastly stuff.
The ravishing “When The Horses Were Shorn of Their Hooves” violently rages, with Carlson slashing out a scorcher of a lead that will leave Earth fans smiling. “Reaching The Gulf,” on the other end of things, is as close as the LP gets to tapping a nostalgic nerve, with less-volatile guitars that emote alongside a curtain of feedback. There is a kind of narrative arc to the whole LP – call it an implicit narrative about a history of genocide in the Americas – but I’ll leave that analysis to wiser scholars. Surely, there’s fodder for it.
There are subtleties to Carlson’s largely percussion-less presentation that are worth noting – is that a vocal exhalation repeating in the background of the fourth track? Why does a background guitar on closer “Reaching” sound like sitar? – but, if you let the sound engulf you, you will find your just desserts. This is music meant to be played loudly – and to which you need to surrender your senses. Crank it up.