Country/blues is probably the last pairing of words I wold have expected to be typing in a review of a Dylan Carlson album, even after Earth’s slow shift towards sparse folk over the last decade and even after Carson’s previous solo album under the Dr Carlson Albion moniker. The execution isn’t radically different: Carlson still explores the tonality of nothing but the amplified guitar and the space between the notes. But ‘Conquistador’ is a much more abrasive work than anything Carlson’s produced in a while: the guitar sound isn’t just more distorted and overdriven, but more trebly, more attacking, and there’s a faster pace to proceedings, too. ‘Conquistador’ is not soft or mellow.
The thirteen-minute title track is very much about the slow build, and follows the structures of repetition which have characterised Carlson’s work for some time, but the fact that this is quite different becomes increasingly apparent as the track progresses: layers of sound – guitar line upon guitar line, as well as sculpted feedback and extraneous noise – build and build, and it’s no longer about the cumulative effect of repetition and the comforting effects of warm valve tones resonating and forming a soft-edged sonic blanket. This is about drilling slowly into the skull.
To track back some way: this is country/blues in the same way Earth’s albums over the last decade have been ‘folk’; it’s an assimilation of the tropes and the core elements, rather than a straight-ahead rockin’ country album, and, of course, it’s completely instrumental and features only Carlson’s guitar by way of instrumentation. Notes bend and echo out across great expanses of desert, the jagged, distorted edges of the core motifs at the heart of each composition shimmering like a heat haze.
The creatures which populate the inhospitable environs Carlson creates are hardy, scavengers, descending crows. ‘Scorpions in their Mouths’ opens with a screed of undifferentiated industrial noise, before the buzzing guitar breaks in, and it’s louder than ever.
‘Reaching the Gulf’, the album’s closer, is the most recognisable as a Carlson composition, and has a gentler feel and softer tone. Here, the space between the notes as they resonate against one another offers comfort and calm.
‘Conquistador’ represents a shift for Carlson, but, thankfully, not a seismic one, instead drawing together the distortion and drone of early Earth with the more accessible and melodic style of his later output.