Rewind: Earth – Extra-Capsular Extraction (1991)

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The 20th anniversary of Nevermind by Nirvana has just passed, with a re-release and radio and television programmes dedicated to the best loved album by the trio. Earth’s debut Extra-Capsular Extraction has also been around for two decades now, but its own anniversary slipped by without a mention. Perhaps it is time that this is also recognised as a landmark in its own right.

Following the release of Nevermind in 1991, there was no rock singer with a higher profile than Kurt Cobain. Released just three weeks later, Extra-Capsular Extraction also featured Cobain’s vocals. Between them, the two releases would help shape mainstream radio rock and underground heavy metal for a generation.

Extra-Capsular Extraction was guitarist Dylan Carlson’s response to a heavy metal genre dominated by bands producing short, fast songs characterised by the use of double-bass drums. He experimented with a drum machine set at a very slow tempo. Instead of the treble-focused sound of thrash, he tuned his guitar down in the style of the mid-70s Black Sabbath records, and he took the unusual step of hiring two bassists.

The result was a sound unlike any other at the time. The clinical sound of the percussion providing the backbone to the lo-fi rumbling of the bass and the grinding guitar chords proved to be the perfect antidote to thrash and death metal, engaging a new audience with heavy music and inspiring a legion of followers to slow down the tempo and turn up the bass. You can clearly hear the influence in many records now considered classics, such as Dopesmoker by Sleep or Welcome to Sky Valley by Kyuss. It’s not an exaggeration to say that much of stoner, sludge and doom metal has a debt to Earth.

There are only two songs on offer here; the first, ‘A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge’, is the one with a small contribution from Kurt Cobain. His voice is trance-like, in sharp contrast to the screams of Kelly Canary of all-girl grunge band Dickless. On most releases this track is split in half, and occasionally the two halves are entitled ‘Eye Surgery’ and ‘Concepts’. However, for my money the more common title is the more appropriate. It’s a complex song invoking a sense of loss and anger until the mood is tempered by Cobain, and from then there is for me a feeling of movement and inevitability as the song marches towards its conclusion.

Next is the more conventional but still challenging ‘Ouroboros Is Broken’. Occasionally referred to as ‘Problems’, this song has become a staple of Earth’s live performances over the years and underwent a re-working for the 2007 release Hibernaculum into the band’s current country-influenced style. The strange stuttering rhythm of the drum machine is initially contrasted with a simple question and answer phrase on the guitar, until both rhythm and melody are deconstructed over the course of the 18-minute song. A little self-indulgent perhaps, but when the riff is totally stripped back to three notes played over a droning bass the sheer power of Carlson’s distorted sound gets inside your head in a way that is hard to describe.

Extra-Capsular Extraction was remastered and re-released last year with the addition of songs from Earth’s demo, new artwork and the title A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction. It includes another collaboration with Kurt Cobain, ‘Divine and Bright’, which has a different feel to other Earth songs of the period and Cobain’s presence is more clearly felt. Much has been said and written about the relationship between Cobain and Carlson, but putting aside their drug use and the other controversies that surround these two men, on this they sound like two friends indulging a shared passion for pushing the boundaries of rock music.

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