For many indie rock fans, the name Ed O’Brien carries no particular immediacy. Invoke O’Brien’s decades-long tenure with English superstars Radiohead, however, and these same fans will gush accolades. The art rock group enjoys a rare status with critics and aficionados, appealing to ravers, indie rockers and even some metalheads. So when one of its founding members debuts as a solo artist, curiosities are naturally stimulated.
O’Brien wisely keeps things concise on Earth. Musically the album coalesces repeatedly around just a handful of relatively simple components. Rich and serene acoustic guitar playing shows up frequently to set up greater aspirations. O’Brien habitually uses warmly building synths to add subtle weight in the margins of the compositions.
This is not to say that Earth indulges in overly straightforward or ham-fisted execution. Rather, Ed O’Brien, or EOB, as he’s going by these days, employs an ancient methodology, using simple foundations to engineer grandiose schemes. Many of the songs begin simply, and expand quickly to incorporate busy, finely nuanced arrangements loaded with subtle turns.
The best example of this approach is progressive single “Brasil.” The lengthy jam starts with harmonious sounds of a lush, insect-rich evening. The scene set, pretty guitar picking enters, segueing to pulsing machine bass. The sweep is trance-like, buoyed by warm major chords. Halfway through its eight-minute run time, the song arrives at cruising altitude. It delicately combines the stirring and the subdued with soaring textures and layered harmonics. The song eschews verse-chorus structure, instead cycling through a series of non-repeating movements.
All the years hanging out with Thom Yorke have rubbed off on O’Brien’s vocals. See “Shangri-La” for proof, where his misty falsetto saturates the intrigue. A swirling buzz of stacked syncopation and hypnotic hooks leads into swelling drama before an organic deescalation.
The shadow of Radiohead stalks Ed O’Brien throughout the record, popping out in more and less pronounced instances. “Shangri-La” provides clues to his specific contributions to Radiohead over the years. “Banksters” hits forcefully like something from In Rainbows, with a chorus indebted to the Black Keys. The song flutters new age rock variables over an odd-time stutter-step drum loop. The percussive movement is enhanced by shakers and assorted elements that don’t quite strike in unison. An infinitesimally flanged and atonal synth arpeggio announces the song’s stargazing wind-down.
Parallels to Radiohead force the inevitable question: Does Earth bring something new to the table, or is it a rehash of O’Brien’s more eminent project? The great news: Most of the album sounds fresh. O’Brien goes deep in the arrangements, especially in regards to rhythm and implied melody. His acuity for highly specific shading sets him apart from Radiohead’s imitators as well.
This works best on the two extended songs released as singles. It’s here that O’Brien comes closest to the subject matter suggested by the album’s title. While the airy “Brasil” evokes a sensory, immersive environment, “Olympik,” with both its athletic intimations and grand oversight, summons a panorama of an active world. The landscape teems with interlocking systems and bombastic collisions. A melodic lead pierces the busy atmosphere with glorious sustain and meticulous delay. “Olympik” rushes with adrenaline, hitting like a trippy Martian club mix. Interestingly, Ed O’Brien seems to apprehend a sense of Earth not as an earthling, but from an outside perspective.
“Olympik” is so hectic and pervasive, it temporarily erases the theme of gentle acoustic warmth that underpins the record. O’Brien is at his best in the album’s experimental extremes. While the acoustic songs carry a summery bedroom charm, the danger of understatement still lingers.
For the most part, interesting touches and highly intentional dynamic arcs save the songs from becoming bland. On “Long Time Coming” O’Brien employs a modal tuning. A galloping, major-seventh-heavy chord progression hints slightly at Led Zeppelin III, until resonant chord tones enrich the arrangement. The song swells with the relaxed contentment of a warm summer night.
“Mass,” also heralded by strummed acoustic guitar, develops slowly, ethereal vocals establishing a sense of galactic wonder. A heavily distorted bridge lumbers in like a fiery asteroid cauterizing black swathes of space. “Deep Days” tinkers a bit more restlessly, as a speakeasy vibe is brought to bear on O’Brien’s hyper-modern sonic palette.
“Cloak Of The Night” closes the album incongruously with a plain fingerpicked acoustic guitar theme. The gentle epilogue is the least descriptive of the batch; an anti-climax. Instead of dissipating the energy built throughout the album, “Cloak Of The Night” introduces so little tension it sounds as though it is unaware of the rest of the set. This small misfire aside, Earth is a cohesive debut, expanding in volatile and surprisingly exponential directions from a core of simple porch ballads for the guitar.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.