Drag City (2013 February)
Comprised of drone merchant Stephen O’Malley (Sunn O)))); psychedelic guitar wizard Michio Kurihara (Ghost/Boris); white-gloved drummer Atsuo, (also Boris); and William Herzog (Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter) on bass, Ensemble Pearl is comprised of some of the brightest gems the drone metal underground has had to offer over the last decade. Many of them have worked together already, so it is an electrifying thrill to have them all gathered on wax, in the same place at the same time.
For this self-titled release, the ensemble’s press release expresses influence from: “Cosmic heavy rock sounds in an area between Link Wray (one of the songs is titled ‘Wray’), Earth “Hex”, and early Tangerine Dream. Inspired by 50s-70s rock and contemporary music productions.”
The Drag City website speaks of “amplified rock drops and ripples, auras radiate and fade away into cloudforms, through which lightning bolts.”
The discerning listener can tell, before even dropping the needle, that what you are about to experience will not likely kowtow to pop conventions like hooks, melodies, lyrics. Before even taking off, you know that you are in for a journey – probably a vision quest.
The question on everybody’s lips, however, is: what makes this record stand out from the legions of drone imitators out there, or even the extensive catalogs of its members? Is Ensemble Pearl worth it? There are hordes of metal guitarists investigating Link Wray’s reverb-soaked desert ambiance. ‘The soundtrack to a western film that does not exist’ has been one of the most used clichés in experimental rock circles for the past five years or so. The press release even mentions Earth’s Hex: Or Printing The Infernal Method; the band’s guitarist and vocalist Dylan Carlson helped to invent the genre, and it is damn tough to top him at his own game.
I would like to use this review to assuage the fears of the wary – those who have been burned by too many lackluster cassette purchases, whose ears have become numb from countless all-night downloading binges. At this point, I’ve probably heard every note that most of these guys have laid to tape, and I can tell you, with confidence, that Ensemble Pearl sound nothing like what they have done before. What anybody has done before.
ALBUM REVIEW CONTINUES BELOW
The first and most noticeable difference is the presence of drummer Atsuo. Stephen O’Malley hasn’t played with a drummer in a hot minute, and just his very existence makes EP way more of a psych rock outfit than I have ever heard O’Malley participate in.
The next deviation lies in the two guitarists. There are two guitarists in Sunn O))) (sometimes more), to be sure, but they are all hewing sonic sculptures of low end. Michio Kurahara’s Gibson SG is inherently Technicolor (listen to the ringing harmonics on album opener “Ghost Parade” for a choice example) while O’Malley’s guitar is like a shadow of Kurahara’s rainbow. It truly feels as if he were jamming with Ghost, which would be a dream come true for the visionary inhabitants of the underground.
A third break in the traditional formula (which is always shifting with these guys anyway) is the participation of Eyvind Kang & Timba Harris, whose sawing and scratching orchestral strings add a nice Americana drone to the ritual.
The last major variation are the analog synths on the colossal “Giant”. They break up the endless desert plod of the album’s beginning, plunging the listener beneath the waves, where time drifts in slow motion, like anemone forests. Kurahara’s guitar floats like tiny bubbles, and the overall effect is surprisingly similar to classic new age music. It is easily the loveliest thing I’ve heard O’Malley involved with, and it makes me excited to see what will come next.
Now that we’re through being wary, no longer afraid that some greedy noise musicians are just trying to take us for $15, we can begin to just enjoy the music, to let it flow over us, like waves of honey. Every musician with a finger in this disc is world class, known for quality control and attention to detail. The mix from Randall Dunn is sublime, transporting the listener and never breaking the hypnotic spell. Every note, every pitch, every tone is perfect, interesting, emotional. These six musicians (counting the guest violinists) have propelled the slow-moving world of drone rock into new, uncharted territories, beyond cliché and easy definition. They exercise control, nuance and craft; more of this might very well save our watered down, hypermanic culture.
Stephen O’Malley is notorious for issuing gorgeous luscious art fetishes into the world, and Ensemble Pearl is no exception. They may start out in the desert, but they will take you to mountain peaks and the bottom of the ocean before returning you to your armchair. Ensemble Pearl have released the headphone album of the year so far, and the record is a pinnacle in their already star-studded and doom-laden careers. This is destined to become a psychedelic classic, mark my words, so you might as well buy a copy while it’s still cheap.