If you’ve had even a casual interest in Wake the Deaf / Various Small Flames over the last few years, you’ll probably know that Todd Umhoefer’s Old Earth is one of our favourites. He doesn’t write music so much as conjure some ancient energy, consistently creating distinctive and undeniably powerful tunes that speak to some long-dormant part of our brains.
Umhoefer’s latest release, Two Torches, at a Place Where Three Roads Meet, finds all the building blocks of the Old Earth sound present once again. Guitars are looped and interwoven, the lyrics opaque but pregnant with meaning, the overall atmosphere one of a strange dream or ritual. The three tracks began as “stragglers” from last year’s Six Around One, and are at once concise and wildly ambitious, with a thematic reach far beyond that of most music. Umhoefer wrote a Facebook post that introduces some of these themes, which revolve primarily around neopagan spiritualism. “Old Earth has always been a projection of matriarchal values,” Umhoefer explains. “These pieces speak to the manifestation of wisdom through the model of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother and Crone).” So expect esoteric explorations rich with symbolism, from the aforementioned lyrics to the moon on the cover art, but free from any sense of performance or appropriation, the imagery not aesthetic but instinctive.
As if to prove this point, ‘Pit Dynamics’ is lean and powerful, Umhoefer’s vocals like some focused mantra as he delivers lines like “Hugging the ceiling something like a ghost / Humming around in waves.” Notions of the religious often bring to mind ideas of great complication, vast narratives fashioned into endless mazes of allegory and metaphor. For all of the references to various belief systems, Old Earth strips religion to its essence, a fundamental mystery hardwired into our souls or strands of DNA, but also much bigger, passing all around us. With this in mind, the opening lines begin to read like Umhoefer’s artistic modus operandi. “I get a feeling something like a call,” he sings. “Open the door and wait.”
Following on, ‘Quiet Your Arms’ begins with tense and reserved guitar, the vocals ringing at the centre of things, radiating outwards like rings on a disturbed pond. Again, Umhoefer’s words have a natural cadence, an almost breath-like rise and fall that conjures the same paradoxical sense of intimacy and awe—a representation of some power, great and peaceful.
“It’s the only thing we build that doesn’t break
It’s the only kind of love that doesn’t fade”
Indeed, such a force plays into a key thematic element of the collection: the ancient Egyptian concept of balance, order and justice. This is personified as a goddess who regulates not just the movement of heavenly bodies but also the early ones of us mortals too. “I’m also pointing towards Maat”, says Umhoefer, “calling for judgement above and beyond self-righteousness—instead one of righteous discernment”.
Perhaps this explains the serenity at the centre of the songs, present again on ‘Park Witch’. Layered guitars orbit careful and considered vocals repeating the same handful of words, Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield adding an atmospheric and wordless croon. So often, peace is framed as an escape, but this is peace as a confrontation—be it psychological, cosmological, theological—facing up to something incredible as a way of dismantling your trivial self.
“What cold came over us?
What height before we called it enough?”
The three songs are as singular as anything Old Earth has released to date, and are so thematically rich as to transcend mere indie rock. You don’t need to be fluent in the principals of ancient Egypt or neopaganism to appreciate the record, with the need for harmony and truth among chaos and disorder as prevalent now as any ancient time. It’s unlikely that Maat is going to descend from the sky and restore order, but we can all play a part, however small, to make a difference. As Umhoefer puts it in his introduction of the release:
“In order to destroy hate and inequity, we have to find peace within ourselves”.
You can get Two Torches, at a Place Where Three Roads Meet now from the Old Earth Bandcamp page.