Dylan Carlson = Ennio Morricone + Bill Frissell + John Zorn + Ezra Pound
It was Joe Strummer of The Clash who issued the urgent public service announcement. In the title track of London Calling, one of rock’s greatest and most diverse albums, the guard dog of punk rock barks, “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” Tribute bands, in that golden age, were deemed the shameful nadir of rock. Even lesser bands, say, The Dead Milkmen, pissed on a notorious L.A. “Doors In The Hood” act, rechristening it Crystal Shit. If you rocked the music, you’d gladly scuttle your ship before paying to see such an embarrassment. The times, though, they have changed.
It was not that any rock band was ever innocent of influence, as imitation is an inescapable quality of all art, perhaps its very origin. Recognizing influence remains one of the great pleasures of music appreciation. It is exciting to hear strains of country, folk, and gospel percolate up through heavy layers of drums and bass. This is half the joy of Led Zeppelin, to witness to their bootlegging of the blues. Jazz listeners get a similar illicit thrill of recognition when hearing Miles Davis cite Disney tunes. The point was not to evade influences, but to force them into new frames and juxtapositions, to bite them back rather than simply letting them house-train you.
A propos, Dylan Carlson’s Conquistador shows a clear understanding of the complex antagonism between tradition and the individual talent. If one could identify in the album (which is, by current standards, more of an EP) a single source of inspiration, it would be fair to accuse Carlson of merely parroting some band or album that predates this new release. It is no great achievement to pick out in Conquistador the drawl and twang of spaghetti-western guitars, or the growling, snarling fuzz of Electric Wizard, or the hypnotic loops of Fripp and Eno. None of these overt sources are buried or disguised. However, each new listening reveals an ever-greater number of odd materials, always combined in unexpected and compelling arrangements. More than showing a mere capacity to ace a vocabulary or grammar quiz in the schoolhouse, Carlson demonstrates a genuine, unself-conscious credibility on the street. Musically, rather than simply imitating the sound or accent of a language, he speaks it in meaningful, fluent, often poetic utterances.
Admittedly, Conquistador does continue his primary band Earth’s excursions into cinematic sounds. Here, however, the experimentation is more profound, and more dependent on tasteful, elegant selection and juxtaposition than formal composition. Not only are the genres from which Carlson draws more diverse, but so is the instrumentation. While the earlier The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull featured unusually clean guitars, concert pianos, and church organs, that album nevertheless retained a rock foundation, constructed atop a standard rhythm section. Conquistador, however, ventures further into the unknown which Carlson seems so fond of conjuring. Here, the bass and drums are stripped away. This creates more openness, a space that Carlson, unencumbered by a band, can strew with saxophones, zithers, hand percussion, bowed cymbals – “ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things.”
Each new timbre figures not as a supplement but a discovery. The trajectory of Carlson’s journey is not out towards the horizon, but rather down into the abyss. The conquistador of this quasi-eponymous film score seems not to narrate some grizzled Spaniard’s triumphant progress into uncharted lands. Rather, our Spaniard seems long dead and gone, foundered and buried in the deep, along with his helmets, guns, and gold doubloons. Carlson, then, takes on the role of sonic diver, plunging under the waves and drawing up lost treasures from the wreckage. While most of what lurks beneath the water’s surface will remain forever hidden from those watching from the shore, each new find only increases the mystery. Each new recovery announces the depth of Carlson’s dives. —Brian Kubarycz