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Review: Earthling Society – Sweet Chariot (released April 20, 2016)

Over the last 10 years, Fred Laird and his gang of pagan psychonauts, collectively known as Earthling Society, have become one of my favourite bands. Continually evolving, each album they release explores new territory, yet stays true to their core sound. Sweet Chariot is their 10th album. In the studio the band is pared down to the duo of Jon Blacow on drums and leader Fred Laird on pretty much everything else. Kim Allen, however, does make an appearance on one track playing bass. Sweet Chariot continues to utilize the free jazz and noise experiments of the band’s previous two albums, England Have My Bones (2014) and It’s Your Love That’s Sound (2015), but this time merges it quite successfully with the more melodic, folksy melodies they explored here and there on earlier releases, probably most notably on Stations of the Ghost (2011).

Opening track Eddie is an edgy rocker. Laird amps up the barely controlled feedback and layers it with a swirling maelstrom of strange sounds and effects, and it’s all propelled along by Blacow’s straight ahead drumming, offering structure to the psychedelic chaos. In the latter half of the song, Laird lays down some truly smoking, effects laden guitar jamming. The music on the album effectively conjures up intimate landscapes of chaos and ruin, but somehow finds in them a fragile beauty. Nowhere can that be heard more effectively than on All in a Dream, where sonic disorder gives way to folksy acoustic guitar and a Morricone-like twangy electric guitar as weirdly harmonized vocals sing a ghostly folk song. When a Child Cries and Angel Sighs continues the folksy motive, although more upbeat this time, with rapidly strummed acoustic guitar. But it’s the gritty, echoing electric guitar and Laird’s heavily processed vocals that take this tune deep into realms of shadowy substance; something comforting and enchanting as it is elusive and frightening. The album closes with the epic title track, presented in two parts that flow one into the other for a total of almost 20-minutes. This one is all about Laird’s noisy, freeform electric guitar against a stunning and complex backdrop featuring layers of drones and spacey effects. But despite the random nature of the piece, order emerges from the sonic bedlam with a dreamy, slowly developing guitar melody that rises above, a beautiful and poignant counterpoint to the pandemonium that swirls around it. Waves of deep ambiance take over for a short time before Part Two breaks out into pure, blazing psychedelic rock, with some sizzling and deeply fried guitar soloing that devolves into a long ambient fadeout.

Sweet Chariot, the album, is more than just a psychedelicized dreamscape though; it also resonates with powerful emotion. But I’m not sure what exactly I’m feeling when I listen to this. I’ve alluded to this throughout the review: Sweet Chariot finds that precarious balancing point between order and chaos, between light and dark, sadness and joy, life and death. That makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what I feel when I listen to it, because it’s all somewhere…betwixt. But that’s part of its magic. Earth magic, we’ll call it. Because as spacey and freaked out as the music can get, it’s less about outer space and more about inner space; the land, England, and the haunted dreams of both its past and its future. Sweet Chariot brilliantly evokes this, without ever striking you in the face with it. It is subtle, eccentric and ragingly beautiful. Highly recommended!

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