Before diving into the albums that make up this list, let’s briefly touch on the title: Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years. For starters, that’s a tall order. The summation of the last 30 years of drone music by way of a meagre 20 albums must be, almost by definition, taken with a grain of salt. That’s not to say that this list shouldn’t be seen as a valuable guide, or appropriate ‘starter pack’ for music fans looking to get into the genre. In fact, the initial thought of creating a sort of drone guide was central to the list’s eventual creation. Secondly, these 20 selections are not meant to define the genre, but are in this listener’s opinion important to its progression, either by being a glowing example of the style or a glowing example of how the style can be pushed into interesting and challenging directions.
The title begs the question: why the last 30 years? Much is known and written about the beginning of drone in the west. In the 60s, The Dream Syndicate, made up of La Monte Young, Jon Hassell, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Marian Zazeela, and more, broke incredible ground into a new music consciousness. But where did it go from there? and what did musicians make who were influenced by the Syndicate, or musicians who were influenced by musician influenced by the Syndicate? These are the questions this guide attempts to explore. There is, however, no mandate to draw definitive conclusions, only to open doors for further exploration.
Lastly, one would be foolish to attempt a list as such without at least loosely defining the term drone. With any codifier, especially in regards to music, this can be a daunting task, especially when dealing with a genre whose distinction from ‘ambient’, ‘new age’, ‘dark ambient’ and ‘electronic’ can feel marginal and unimportant. La Monte Young defined drone as “the sustained tone branch of minimalism,” which is a fine definition except that it doesn’t seem to account for the music’s mood or effect on the listener. I would add that the mood of the best drone music tends to remain objective, or even moodless at times, differentiating it from ambient and dark ambient – the former often relying on melancholy while the latter tending to be more menacing. It’s a slim difference, but the understanding of that difference seems to grow as one discovers and absorbs this music passionately. Fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t much more to be said.
Now, in no particular order and with the necessary preamble out of the way, I present an honest attempt at distilling and organizing 30 years of drone music into 20 landmark albums. Enjoy, and drone on…
John Duncan – Phantom Broadcast
The prolific and nomadic artist John Duncan was primarily interested in performance in the 70s, responsible for pieces that dealt with challenging and difficult subject matter – his piece Scare saw him firing blanks from a real gun at preselected audience members while the remaining members watched in terror. In the early 80s he became engrossed with the musical potential of shortwave radio and began what would slowly become a long and meaningful relationship with sound.
Although this is only one among dozens of recordings Duncan released since his career started to ramp up in the 90s, it does seem to mark a kind of milestone in that journey. To do what Duncan is able to do with shortwave is to possess a gifted understanding of the power of nuance that is vital to, not just drone, but many forms of music. Phantom Broadcast showcases this intellect in the form of fluttering tones that simmer and decay over long arcs. The result is haunting, and as the piece gradually dissolves, you may find your reality dissolving with it.
Mirror – Eye of the Storm
Mirror was the reticent music project of Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heemann, including contribution from Andreas Martin and Jim O’Rourke (or The Chameleon as I like to call him). The group was active during the early and mid 2000s but fizzled out in ’05. What’s striking about Mirror’s construction of the drone is how it’s creators feel almost completely removed. Their music takes on a fluidity to the extent that each album can feel like the aural representation of something that happens each and every second in the natural world: the gradual erosion of a river bank, or the movement of a plant leaf toward the sun.
Now consider the eye of a storm. Characteristically, the eye is peaceful, while all around it are turbulent winds and thrashing rain. To say this music is the aural representation of the eye of the storm as it occurs in nature is an understatement. The tones here are delicate, almost pastoral at times, but around them dark storm clouds loom. On close listen the music can be rather unsettling, but from a far it can fill a room and have a calming effect. The duality represented here is almost too obvious, but really it’s best not to overthink Eye of the Storm. After all, you wouldn’t want it passing you by.
Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra
In the first decade of the 21st century Stars of the Lid set a new bar with two epics. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline have become benchmarks of modern ambient. Almost every contemporary drone or neoclassical outfit is compared to SOTL at some point in their career, and for good reason. Much is lauded of their albums from the 2000s, but the band had established their excellence prior to that time, notably with the release of The Ballasted Orchestra in ’97.
The Ballasted Orchestra has aged very well, and tends to be the SOTL album I return to the most. What would later become a sound tied to minimalist influences from the realm of piano centred compositional music – Satie, Part, Feldman, etc. – was all that much foreboding and mysterious on this release. This is SOTL at their droniest, and most spectral. Though Adam Wiltzie and Brian Mcbride remain busy to date, it doesn’t look like the world will be graced with anything quite like The Ballasted Orchestra any time soon (although, reportedly the duo have been working with Ben Frost on the new SOTL album). In any regard, this is an album to be cherished as one of the band’s greats and one of drone music’s finest.
Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis – Deep Listening
(New Albion, 1989)
The recent passing of Pauline Oliveros saw the death of one of ambient music’s true geniuses. Perhaps only second to the word ‘ambient’ itself, deep listening, coined by Oliveros, became a widely used term to describe a more refined, immersive way of experiencing our sonic world. It has become valuable to audiences and artists alike, imploring an aesthetic that can better connect an artist to improvisation, to environment, and can help hone their responses to music and sound.
This recording from 1989 by Oliveros, Dempster and Panaiotis is the first major recording by this trio (later to be renamed The Deep Listening Band) and is an absolutely essential drone album. Deep Listening saw the trio descend into a 14 foot cistern, where the four pieces that make up the album where performed and recorded. As anyone might guess, the highly reverberant space lends much to these recordings. Listening to the album, one really gets a sense of the architecture surrounding the sounds. The silence pocked throughout the recordings further accentuate the important role of the location, where voice, accordion, didgeridoo, trombone, and even a conch shell, feel all the more enveloping to the listener. As if choreographed, the trio were able to conjure an enormous sound from so little, in turn paving the way for the emergence of a new generation of minimalists, ambient purveyors, and drone worshipers.
Earth – Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version
(Sub Pop, 1993)
Any drone list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Earth 2. The shape of doom and drone metal would look significantly different if this album was never made. It was influential even enough to spawn Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s Sunn O))), who would become more popular than Earth themselves. Earth, however, would stay relevant, altering their sound to incorporate more folk, country and jazz elements.
Earth 2 doesn’t rank among the band’s best albums, but it was ahead of its time. To this day its tenacity is indisputable, and as the metal behemoth’s debut it was a bold statement, unrelenting in its guitar drone and distorted riffs that oozed from amplifiers like so much sludge. After its release the album could only be received as a statement that this band meant business, and that they did. Certainly, Earth 2 is a landmark drone album.
Kyle Bobby Dunn – Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness
(Students of Decay, 2014)
In tracking the musical career of the Canadian born composer Kyle Bobby Dunn, it’s impressive how well he’s been able to float just below the radar for over a decade. I can only surmise that this is a comfortable place for the guy, that he’s not exactly one for the limelight. As a solo artist he’s had a steady output of albums on notable labels such as Low Point, Sedimental, and Desire Path, and critics have been very kind to his work over the years.
Dunn is able to coax drones from a guitar better than most, and one needn’t look further than his Students of Decay masterpiece (and I do not appreciate that word being tossed around) from 2014. Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness manages to retrace the best moments of Bring Me the Head of Kyle Bobby Dunn, while expanding on those ideas with patience and a vision to bring on a previously unheard lushness into the arrangements. The four-movement-spanning C side from the LP version is arguably the best 23 consecutive minutes of any recorded modern compositional music. Perhaps a broader circle of listeners could see …and the Infinite Sadness regarded as a guitar drone classic. To more than a few fans it likely already holds that honourable distinction.
Pelt – Ayahuasca
(VHF Records, 2001)
The late 90s and early 2000s bred a strange and fascinating group of psychfolk and raga-centred drone bands, where it wouldn’t be unusual to see 8+ members perform at once, but hardly ever would a band perform with the same lineup twice. It was a time of rebirth for the ideas set into motion by The Dream Syndicate, giving way to a central nervous system of musicians who seemed perfectly suited to eat, breathe, and sleep minimalist free improv. ‘New Weird America’ was eventually coined for the movement, and as that seemed to perfectly suit bands like Sunburned Hand (of the man) and No-Neck Blues Band, it always felt a bit clunky for Pelt, who were more interested in their tapestry of drones than ever getting all that weird.
Ayahuasca is Pelt’s most robust work, and also happens to be their longest. It feels like the band’s focus was brought up a notch than on other efforts, with Jack Rose’s fast paced guitar playing having an amount of presence throughout that neither limits itself nor crowds the underlying ragas. Listening to this now, plucked from its weird America context, the album shines, with its arrangements of primitive guitar and bowed strings and bowls enveloping the body and mind like a warm bath. Ayahuasca is a must hear for any drone enthusiast.
Jonathan Coleclough & Andrew Chalk – Sumac
(Robot, Siren Records, 1997)
Few artists know their way around a drone better than British stalwarts Jonathan Coleclough and Andrew Chalk, so to have them together on a recording is quite the treat. Sumac – the extended one hour and eleven minute version in particular – is an absolute behemoth of modern UK minimalism. After twenty years this record still stands up, not only as a defining work from the time, but one that still holds precedence against much of the drone based music of today.
Nearly ten years ago, on a now defunct blog, I described Sumac as “[…] an album without ‘start’ or ‘finish’. When you hit play you aren’t starting the album, you are simply given access to an eternal flow of sound that exists regardless if anyone is even listening.” This notion of an eternal flow is perhaps the most important reason why this piece works so well. On the surface, the musical elements all come together fine enough, but what’s really at play here is a keen understanding of temporality: its relationship to music and music’s relationship to it. Taking this in mind, what I hear as an eternal flow could also be interpreted as a stasis. Whether it’s heard as moving or standing still, Sumac remains timeless.
Spiracle – Ananta
(Mystery Sea, 2006)
Brood for a moment on the concept of infinity. Infinity, in every potential context is beyond the grasp of the human mind. Sure, the word itself, like any other, is definable, but to truly grasp infinity is to step outside what is comprehendible for the human mind; impossibility and limitlessness are threaded into the word’s meaning, after all. Ananta is the Sanskrit word for infinity, and although the introduction to this review could be accepted as a deterrent for its use, there are few titles that would feel as fitting for this Spiracle album.
Spiracle is a recording alias of Japanese musician and painter Hitoshi Kojo. On Ananta, Kojo evokes the infinite by way of a complex tapestry of sound. The piece changes very little over the course of an hour, gently rolling along like an ocean wave that is thousands of kilometres from its break. The album’s pulse is purely mechanical, but it’s appendages are organic, as if sourced from water and wind. It could just be Kojo’s expertise but the two contrasting elements seem to come together rather naturally, though it takes a bit of time to adjust to all that’s unfolding before your ears. When one does adjust, the piece’s energy feels boundless.
Nurse with Wound – Soliloquy for Lilith
(Idle Hole Records, 1988)
There are many words one could use to describe Nurse with Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith, but ‘digestible’ would probably not be one of them. At nearly 2.5 hours in length, this album is as massive an undertaking for the listener as it likely was for Steven Stapleton to create it – despite it coming to life as a fortunate accident of no input mixing. The shear magnitude is reminiscent of works like Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, where it’s not outrageous to think that people should be given an award just for getting through it all in one sitting. Even by the genre’s standards, Soliloquy demands much from its audience, but reveals an admirable restraint from the part of Stapleton, who built each of these eight pieces stoically, and with precision.
Although it’s difficult to differentiate these movements, one could argue that any single piece left on its own would seem somehow naked. There is a strange paradox at work here. As mechanical as these tonal arrangements sound, they also come across as living, breathing, entities; a pulse all the while running through the album’s core. Every piece here seems to be built around its own controlled feedback loop, gently rising and falling in undulation while an interplay of overtones and secondary feedback creeps in and out of the mix. In the ever growing monster that is the NWW catalogue, Soliloquy for Lilith stands as not only one of the band’s best efforts, but as one of the greatest drone albums of all time.