Listening to Earthside’s “Watching the Earth Sink” half asleep on a morning flight
I found myself listening to the new Earthside album, Let the Truth Speak, for the first time at around 6am at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport while waiting for a 7am flight home. I was coming off a work trip that was overall great, but I cannot overstate how exhausted I was — operating on 3 hours sleep after a week full of intense planning and debating and team-building, lugging a carry-on, juggling overpriced egg sandwich and burnt coffee in hands. I missed my family and my bed. My brain was exhausted from the past week but still swimming with thoughts, and I needed to slow it down. It probably was not wise for me to listen to a 78-minute progressive metal album under these conditions.
“Watching the Earth Sink” (track 5 of 10) began just before my boarding group was called up. For the next twelve minutes, I daydreamed one of the most vivid daydreams I’ve had in my life, which followed me from the airport waiting area, into the Airbus A220, into my seat, into the faces and tiny windows surrounding me. In my half-asleep stupor I thought the world might be tearing itself apart around me, exacting vengeance for our endless societal wrongdoings and forcing me to watch helplessly from my aisle seat.
This song is not for everyone. It’s progressive metal, which is already a much-maligned genre overfilled with tropes. It’s nearly 12 minutes in length. There are reportedly 29 separate guitar performances on this song. Even some diehard metal fans don’t care for it, one reviewer calling it “exhausting” with a “careful build-up, only to unceremoniously wipe it off the floor with a predictable post-metal jaunt whose single trick is to be heavy.”
I disagree. I’m not sure if “Watching the Earth Sink” is my favorite song of 2023, but I think it’s a song deserving special attention and analysis. It’s meticulous in its construction. It moves the progressive metal genre forward. It’s one that requires multiple listens and (if I’m honest) benefits from some kind of sleep or sensory deprivation to appreciate it fully. Consider listening when you’re alone, driving through empty forest roads in the dark, or perhaps when you’re half asleep and feeling down while stuck at an airport, people watching.
Earthside themselves describe “Watching the Earth Sink” as “an instrumental narrative told from the perspective of an onlooker to the current state of the world—one who feels disconnected from the warring powers that be, left to simply bear witness to calamities they feel helpless to prevent.” You feel all of this over the 12 minutes of the piece. You feel it after sitting with the title alone. It’s perfect in its bleakness. It implies passivity — you’re helpless to do anything but watch as the Earth is sinking around you. Just sinking. Not exploding or imploding, not tearing apart like an earthquake. A sinkhole. Slowly and gradually fading out of view, probably unnoticeable except for the bubbling earthen muck. Perhaps sinking to baser, perfectly human instincts, lashing out at the inhabitants that care too little to take care of it or themselves.
I’re read a few reviews of Let The Truth Speak which rave about this song, some of which specifically call out guitarist Jamie van Dyck’s solo in the introductory section of “Watching” as sweet and calming. Someone likened it to floating down a river.
Nope. Not even close. This song kicks off in utter devastation. Like the mood after a funeral1, it’s grim, beyond somber. Clean tone and dense reverb may imply “calming vibes,” but Jamie (guitarist, composer and friend) plays as if he’s suffering an existential crisis, stumbling out of tempo and in somber defeat. Jamie oscillates slowly in my earbuds between D minor to B- flat minor, two of the saddest chords in Western music. In my half- asleep stupor at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport, I am there with him as I glance at televisions spouting horrifying news about the Gaza crisis while twenty- and thirty-somethings stare at laptops and smartphones and the more neurotic travelers cut each other in line for a plane not yet ready for boarding. Nothing is good.
Until carefully voiced chords breathe and meander upwards, pivoting to inversions of D major then to a less bleak G minor, suggesting a cautious way forward. The guitar continues its musing as I oscillate between people-watching and my iPhone. It feels pointless to try to understand anymore as the guitar settles into an E minor to lydian E-flat, as if it’s second guessing itself.
My boarding group is called. My cautious optimism is complemented by a meditative ostinato at one minute, fifty-three seconds. Played in unison by Ryan’s bass guitar and an ethereal bell-sounding synth from Frank on keyboards, defeat turns to surrealist wonder in 23/16. I appreciate that this section has no discernible melody or solo; it’s driven by mood and movement. It’s difficult to keep the pulse, but it almost doesn’t matter because things are looking up: I’m finally almost on my plane, it’s not overly crowded, the guitar has found solace in dense Lydian chords and arpeggios if only for a few moments. Even after the arpeggios abruptly cut, the ostinato continues for four bars. We’re still okay. The Earth has yet to sink.
The ostinato is suddenly, but only partially, replaced by militant clicks on the snare drum and driving root notes on the bass. Frank keeps wandering in twenty-three, occasionally embellishing on the core, while the rest of the band shifts to a tense 4/4. But you can’t really tell: the juxtaposition of increased pace with slow root movement in the bass makes it even more difficult than before to find the pulse. I feel uneasy. I’m stopped in the aisle as I wait for passengers ahead of me frantically search for overhead space.
At 4:11: a jump scare.
The bass guitar tone suddenly shifts on an up beat to overdrive and I don’t see it coming. I haven’t had this happen while listening to music in years. We’re now unapologetically in 4/4 and it feels like something is careening toward disaster. I come to my senses and look out the window and I imagine Florida buildings in the distance starting to collapse as a crack in the Earth forms and spreads toward the airport tarmac. The floor of the plan is vibrating under my feet. The ground splitting in the distance, out of which a massive earthen hand rises up, preparing to grab the plane and tear it in two.
Four minutes and forty-five seconds, the tense rhythmic build abruptly explodes into a brutal, direct 3/4. Drop B flat guitars, kicks and cymbals each pummel your listener in unison for exactly 19 repetitions until shifting to C sharp on an upbeat, continuing the feeling of the music shifting below your feet when you least expect. The use of harmonic minor scale here combined with the intentional chord movement on upbeats really exemplifies sinister chaos. The plane is taking off and in my head it’s moving as fast as it can to avoid the earthen behemoth careening into the side of it. Frank’s synthesizer screams faintly in a distant corner of the mix, possibly echoing my own internalized panic. This is quickly overtaken by demonic orchestral hits2 that follow the chord movements in synch with the other instruments, as if to suggest it’s now useless to panic. Suffering is inevitable now.
But by minute seven, a reprieve. We’re well in the air as the destruction unfolds below. While the plane flies safely and normally, I feel an uncertainty punctuated by the pivot to the key of A, the dominant chord of the song’s D minor root. It’s rare to hear such a simple chord change in progressive metal, where rhythmic and harmonic complexity abound. Ryan’s bass arpeggiates 7ths and 9th chords as they change from A to G to E flat, finally returning to the root, perfectly simulating my unease. Jamie leads the way with a confident melody, and it almost alleviates the feeling.
At 8:12 I am in a haze as everything fades away but a descending keyboard line. It’s as if there are embers and ash dancing around; the heavy use of major 7ths in this otherwise epically bleak song are equal parts playful and ominous. Eventually all the instrumentalists join the dance, with performances that evoke a desperate last stand. Jamie’s guitar wails with desperation as Ben majestically slams on every tom in his kit. After a few bars the bass and a deeper guitar take over with a sinister riff, mostly playing root notes again – almost an homage to the earlier devastating section, D harmonic minor and all, reminding me there’s more destruction to be had. It’s coming.
Once bass and guitar reach for a deep baritone A, we’re in a nose dive. This is doom metal. There’s no more hope. I’m pulled down into the depths. A once-playful melody has been mangled into something evil by a wicked cabal of guitars. The drum kit reaches escape velocity over sixteen bars.
And then it…just stops. There’s no resolution, no final word. I am left hanging just above the abyss.
It was a pretty normal flight in reality. I landed at Logan Airport in Boston on time, and got home to my wife, kid and dog a little over an hour later. But during the early minutes of said flight I experienced something visceral, gripping, devastating.
It’s quite rare nowadays that music — and music alone – can achieve that.
It’s not lost on me that the final words of the preceding track “Pattern of Rebirth” are: life comes and goes, life↩︎
If I’m honest: this is the one part of the song I feel could be stronger. The orchestral hits feel just cliché enough where it actually took me a bit out of the experience until 7 minutes in, once the hazy bridge section begins.↩︎