One can separate any given record by drone-rock pioneers and legends Earth into one of two categories. The first camp is the drone metal records, which comprise their entire early period up to their first hiatus as well as their previous two records, 2014’s Primitive and Deadly and Concrete Desert, their collaboration with The Bug. The second camp is, for lack of a better word, cowboy music, essentially Morricone’s soundtracks with the ambiance dialed up to 11, a sound they began exploring on Hex; or, Printing in the Infernal Method and forward. This second set of records draws on the long-standing elements of folk, country, blues, and jazz that previously had been minor inflections on the group’s overall sound but had yet up until that point taken center stage as the primary musical direction, a place previously reserved for ultra-heavy downtuned and slow-as-molasses riffing.
Full Upon Her Burning Lips then would comfortably sit within the latter category, eschewing the brief return to clearly metallic textures found on Primitive and Deadly for the more floral, folk- and country-driven spaces of their mid-period. There is, of course, a difference, however; Earth has attained their goodwill as musicians, after all, by marking that second and less discretely metallic period of their music with essentially album-length experiments. For Hex, it was the beginning of the country-folk explorations, while its followup The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull introduced cello to the band’s sound and was the first time they played openly with the kinds of experimental jazz-folk ideas that groups in the ’60s such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention were popularizing. Full Upon Her Burning Lips feels most in line with Bees in this sense, in which despite featuring a stripped-down lineup and more bare and simple arrangements for the group still feels more like an inventive very nearly psychedelic folk record than something in the ballpark of metal.
It is also notable for being perhaps the happiest record of Earth’s body of work. It was billed in press releases as an exploration of the feminine and of witchcraft, elements that are certainly present in the track and album titles but which seem to have been interpreted by the band as a previously unseen brightness to the proceedings. Even at their most beautiful and least heavy, the Earth compositions prior to this record still erred to the funereal and somber, living comfortably within the realms of heavy music even when it wasn’t precisely heavy metal music. Burning Lips bucks this trend, feeling serene and joyful, meditative at last not on the sorrows of life and the world, of the ravages of addiction and death, of the wounds of loss and the irretrievable, but instead on the bounty of life that seems to effervesce even in our darkest.
There are track titles such as “She Rides an Air of Malevolence” and “A Wretched Country of Dusk,” which seem to indicate a lingering darkness billowing out in preparation of a total descent into evil; this sense, however, is not carried onto the tracks themselves, which instead feel calm, prepared, even-handed. It is, perhaps, a sign of shifting perspective; “She Rides an Air of Malevolence,” for example, may be framed from the perspective of someone witnessing a witch approaching in title but from the witch herself in form, given the noted thematic direction of the album, explaining its internal joy and peace despite the foreboding title.
This placidity, combined with a shift to shorter track lengths after a ten-year stretch of nearly exclusively eight-plus minute pieces, does unfortunately mean that Full Upon Her Burning Lips feels less eventful and dramatically satisfying than a standard Earth record. Not since Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2 has there been an Earth record that felt as meandering as this in terms of an overall structural feel. But while Angels/Demons 2 likely felt as it did for being a set of good but not strictly necessary songs extending the conceit of its predecessor record, Full Upon Her Burning Lips instead feels uneventful more due to a lack of variety in approaches to songs, staying true to a relatively singular conceit and mood while only letting 2 of 10 tracks billow out into beautiful clouds the way Earth tracks so often do.
To another band, this kind of critique could come across as damning. After all, rock, drone, and metal are often album-oriented genres, and country-folk isn’t devoid of the album-oriented impulse either, and so having an unsatisfying overall shape to a record is often what determines what gets played and what doesn’t, what has lasting power and what stays on the shelf. But this ignores that Earth is definitely in the legacy period of their career, where producing vital work is obviously still important but the pressures to prove themselves with every album are more than in the rearview. For that kind of work, their very recent collaboration with The Bug seems to fill the album-oriented void; Full Upon Her Burning Lips, from its casual, simple and beautiful cover to the general placidity of the proceedings, seems more interested in producing songs to pepper into live sets, a mark on which it is successful. Overall, it may not be the greatest album the group has produced, but it also doesn’t need to be; every song is good and the thought of these becoming realized in a live environment is tantalizing, something that certainly weighs heavier on the mind of Dylan Carson and company these days than cinching another all-time great record to their belt.