Conquistador by Dylan CarlsonRelease date: April 27, 2018
Label: Sargent House
You step out onto a vast expanse of scorched dust and squint into the midday sun. Licking your parched lips, you take a sip from a depleted waterskin. It’s high time you found yourself a place to refill, so you mount your horse, as tired and lean as yourself, and set off towards a hazy shimmering in the distance that just could be water.
You’re on the train to Salisbury, writing a review on your laptop in England, the Year of Our Lord 2018. You’re me, you’re listening to the new Dylan Carlson record, and you haven’t ridden a horse since you were 10. You may be thirsty, but the trolley guy just went past with a selection of cool beverages – the only reason you don’t have one now is they’re so damn expensive.
Both of these statements are true.
Conquistador is the kind of record that is in its very nature a flight of fantasy. It doesn’t matter where or when you listen to it, as soon as the first slow, incendiary riff of title track ‘Conquistador’ meanders into your ears, you’re transported. It has a clear spiritual ancestor in Carlson’s fourth studio LP in his seminal doom country band Earth, Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method. Both albums situate themselves in the American West; Hex by interpreting Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Conquistador by telling a story of Carlson’s own creation of a Spanish conquistador in the expanse of New Mexico. Conquistador excels in painting landscape with sound; the sandstone texture of Carlson’s deliberate lead guitar in the title track grates softly in your ears like sand, twisting and swelling alternately, undulating in the western breeze. The track is ponderous – if you like your music with a distinct structure and at a normal speed, you’re not going to find that here. Instead it strides purposefully towards its conclusion thirteen minutes in, allowing heft and atmosphere to accumulate around itself until it becomes a dust devil of stormy tension. The rest of the album follows suit – no other track goes on for as long, but each is comprised of one central riff steadily steadily building on itself, unfurling in new directions before returning to its starting point and repeating. It’s a method that Carlson has been using for many years now, and he hasn’t lost any of his gift with it – simple though the music may seem, it’s immaculately conceived and executed.
Carlson crafts an impressively hefty narrative and sound using just his guitar, but essential to the completed picture here are collaborators Emma Ruth Rundle and Holly Carlson. Rundle, herself a singular solo artist and band musician herself, contributes her signature poignant baritone and slide guitar work, while Carlson – artist, dancer, and wife of Dylan – plays percussion and features as the figure on the album’s sleeve. Rundle materialises out of the ephemeral dust cloud of Dylan Carlson’s guitar as shafts of light gracing the corner of a room, giving a distinction and new colour to the moods he creates. Holly’s minimalist percussion provides structure to tracks such as the scorching ‘Scorpions in their Mouths’, providing a skeletal backdrop to the colossal weight of the track’s body and an essential marker of its progression. The richness of the tapestry that these three create with such basic tools is a testament to the immense power of minimalism and their synergy as performers.
Conquistador is a difficult album to describe. Slow, instrumental, and minimalistic to the point of being barren, it’s less a musical composition than a mood piece. The lucid imagery that it manages to carry despite its limited range of instruments is incredible – I’ve found myself returning to it whenever I’m feeling uninspired or uninterested in music because of the sheer effortless immediacy of its storytelling. Its brief runtime makes it an inviting escape, best experienced walking around in the sun or staring out of a moving vehicle. For Dylan Carlson’s first studio record under his own name, it couldn’t be a better statement of intent.