This is the second of a two part series documenting 20 albums as an introduction to the past 30 years of drone music. visit here for part one.
Kevin Drumm – Imperial Distortion
(Hospital Productions, 2008)
Kevin Drumm is certainly recognized more for bringing the noise than anything else, with his Mego debut, Sheer Hellish Miasma, opening the flood gates to a discography of now over 100 strong. Drumm’s noise work (from the ten or so albums I’ve heard) is interesting but not all that engaging. Imperial Distortion is another beast entirely, bringing to light a side of Drumm’s music that most fans likely didn’t know existed before its release.
Over a double-disc set, Imperial Distortion sees previous impulses toward more spastic tones curbed in favour of meditative drones. The music here is the sonic equivalent of the horizon at dusk, sun-doused as an already distant and bleary memory. To delve into this album is to open one’s ears to the quiet, rusted and weather beaten remnants of sound; it is the sound of decay. One can draw parallels here to the music of Jim Haynes or Lawrence English, but Imperial Distortion seems all the more nihilistic. A fine drone album, but be warned, do not attempt to fall asleep to this unless you want to be jarred awake by the blast of noise that graces the final minute.
Jonathan Coleclough – Period
Jonathan Coleclough is no stranger to collaboration, but it’s in his solo work where his genius shines. Albums like his impeccable Windlass and 2004’s Makruna ･ Minya encapsulate the sounds of a drone artist in peak form. I would argue that Period, however, is Coleclough’s most realized, and therefore, best work. It also happens to be his darkest and probably his most unique album. Period’s particular use of unprocessed minor key piano is atypical of artists often affiliated with so-called lowercase minimalism and droning ambient. Part of what makes this album work as well as it does is this unflinching use of the piano, striking and cold as ice.
Putting aside the details for a moment, Period, on an unmistakable level, is made up of two paralleling distinctive tracks. The first track, that lives in the foreground, is made up of unprocessed piano. Notes are struck and left to ring out into silence, with sometimes one minute going by until the next note breaks through a swath of drones. It is this simmering layer of drone that makes up the second track, acting as a constant presence that fills the void between the sparingly played keys. When it is all put together, Period makes for an hypnotic and all around mesmerizing listen.
Alio Die & Ora – The Door of Possibilities
(Hic Sunt Leones, 1994)
Ora was the musical project of Darren Tate and Andrew Chalk, existing in a 10 year span from the early 90s to the early 2000s. On The Door of Possibilities the duo teamed up with Italian ambient-electronic composer Stefano Musso, aka Alio Die. In taking into account their respective styles, it’s no wonder these three decided to make an album together, as their tastes for organic soundscaping overlapped very well.
The Door of Possibilities is a bit more amped up then your typical Ora effort, where soft percussive elements grace many of the field-recording heavy tracks. I am not overly familiar with Alio Die’s catalog, but I can only infer that he was responsible for giving some of these songs their additional heft. A couple tracks almost veer into post-rock territory, albeit a very hushed, Middle-earth take on post-rock. “Bestiole Nascoste Tra Muschio E Le Alghe” is an obvious example and a standout track, leaning more heavily on traditional melodies than pure ambient bliss. And though there is plenty of bliss to go around, The Door of Possibilities is one of those albums where the artists involved were able to gracefully pivot their sound without tumbling off the track.
Velvet Cacoon – Atropine
(Full Moon Productions, 2009)
Operating in cloak-and-dagger form, Portland, Oregon’s Velvet Cacoon made a name for themselves in the extreme metal community before disbanding in 2012. The band came under some fire from fans and haters alike after an interview with an Italian publication revealed that many “claims” the band had made about their music and lifestyles were actually false. More accurately, the band simply did little to discredit rumours and once in a while enjoyed a little piss taking. Dubious claims aside, it’s clear that VC made music their top priority (even if in frequent conjunction with copious amounts of drugs).
A variation of black metal was for the most part the band’s musical focus, but on Atropine, that focus is shifted toward an exclusive use of rarified drones and swelling dark ambience. The album is only a slight deviation in the band’s typical feel, but gone is any semblance of recognizable instrumentation, replaced by music so obfuscated that it takes on an otherworldly quality. “Nightvines” is reminiscent of Andrew Chalk’s Vega, while the 36 minute “Dreaming in a Hemlock patch” has more in common with a humming radiator then anything typically categorized as music. As their final statement, Velvet Cacoon conjured up another baffling take on black metal, taking the form of a truly haunting drone work.
Rolf Julius – Music for a Distance
(Western Vinyl, 2011 : composed between 2003-2009)
The German artist Rolf Julius was a through and through sound and visual artist. Throughout his life until his death in 2011, Julius produced work from a seemingly boundless well of inspiration. As a sound artist, Julius’s primary focus was on “small music,” a Cageian term “designat[ing] sounds so subtle they’re usually barely discernible,” according to Discogs. One might not immediately classify Julius’s music as ‘drone’, and although I do think it’s some of the most difficult music to describe, it does seem to rely heavily on the drone-like principles of length and repetition. A lot of the time it just sounds like a bunch of insects.
Music for a Distance was first conceived in 2003, after which Julius spent six or so years tweaking it in the studio. The version of the piece that I am familiar with – the Western Vinyl release from 2011 – is rather refined. Music for a Distance is 40 minutes of controlled chaos. Within its parameters there exists a cornucopia of buzzing, scraping, droning, twitching, and fizzling sonic elements, all buried next to each other and vying for attention. Within that cacophony Julius layers in gentle tone bursts at random intervals that unfold a little differently every time. While the arc of the piece is predictable, its specific unfolding is not. In the context of Rolf Julius’s catalogue, this is a good place to start. I also recommend the piece “Raining.”
Lawrence English – Kiri No Oto
Lawrence English, the busy Australian intermedia artist, has worked his way through the musical ranks since the early 2000s to become a dependable figure on the experimental music world stage. His curatorial experience has seen him gracefully handle the endeavours of his Room40 label whilst juggling collaborations and his own sound and visual projects. English’s interest in music is multifaceted, evident not just by the diverse repertoire of artists throughout the Room40 catalogue, but also by way of his own work – his field recording library has grown considerably over the last few years. English is showing very little sign of slowing down, with the beginning of 2017 seeing the release of his new album, Cruel Optimism, while the remainder of the year looks quite promising for the Aussie.
English’s sole release for Touch in ’08 is also his most mystifying. Right from the title, which loosely translates to ‘sound of fog,’ we get the hint that no compass will help in navigating us through its deep wells and shifting atmospheres. The album art, too, – a small boat at sea in an endless blue-grey vista – beckons of the ill-fated confidence of so many chasers of the storm. Front to back, experiencing Kiri No Oto is like navigating the open ocean with little reference. And when reference points do surface, they soon become fading blips on a comet tail of decaying drones. In this ‘sound of fog,’ the best that any listener can hope for is to let go, get lost, and come out on the other side in one piece.
Aeolian String Ensemble – Eclipse
(Robot Records, 2004)
Despite being dubbed an ensemble, Eclipse is the work of no more than one man. That man is David Kenny, and if that name seems familiar it’s because you may have read it in the linear notes of a Nurse with Wound or Current 93 album, where he would have been listed as a collaborator. For his solo work, Kenny doesn’t steer very far from the likes of either aforementioned project, but does take things in a more ethereal, spacey direction on Eclipse, the second of only two releases from the ASE.
Eclipse’s opener, “Espacios” sets the tone as a calming arrangement of elongated drones; like an epsom salt bath for the ears, the music verges on effervescent. “K1,” the second of the three pieces, doesn’t hide its source material as well, where elegiac harp strings are clearly heard, first plucked in a descending scale and then looped in a three or four note phrase. All the while a gentle feedback pulses throughout the song, gaining momentum and on a few occasions nearly escaping a comfortable volume threshold before getting abruptly cut off. “K1” is louder and more jarring but acts as a nice counterbalance to the more ethereal bookending pieces. The album ends on the title track that also happens to be the longest piece on Eclipse, where Kenny reigns in the sounds once again to nicely finish of this very solid release.
Vikki Jackman – Of Beauty Reminiscing
(Faraway Press, 2006)
For an artist who has produced as little work as Vikki Jackman, it is amazing how impactful her presence has been. Certainly her affiliation and occasional collaboration with Andrew Chalk helped in getting her name out there, but it is her own musical vision that has sustained her status alongside respected contemporaries.
It is Jackman’s understated methodology of the piano that is her strongest suit, arguably put to best practice on her debut album, Of Beauty Reminiscing. The difficulty in putting into words what it is that distinguishes Jackman’s work from other’s is part of what makes her music so noteworthy. There is a certain quality, a colouring of these sounds that is hard to pin down, but so recognizably her own. Piano notes are unearthed, never sounding whole to begin with, but exist as wisps of sound alongside fleeting drones. Of Beauty… instills a feeling of peace similar to the music of Kyle Bobby Dunn or Stars of the Lid, but with far less. In her case silence and the space between sounds becomes as important as the sounds themselves. Jackman understands this dance better than anyone.
Thomas Köner – Teimo
(Barooni, 1991 : above cover art from 2010 Type reissue)
Often considered one of the masters of drone, Thomas Köner doesn’t need much of an introduction. His albums are a fascinating investigation into the principles of deep listening. Usually, a Köner album amounts to little on first listen, where one can only derive the basic architecture of any piece. Subsequent listens, however, reveal deep seeded nuances, rich textures crawl up from dark crevices and come alive. Köner’s musical talents are vast, stretching from the oh-so-minimal to the art club jams of Porter Ricks, his late 90s techno project with Andy Mellwig. The man has also had a long standing fascination with combining his sound with visual accompaniment. Of all his endeavours, it’s the music he has released under his own name that keep me coming back, especially his albums for Mille Plateaux and Barooni.
Teimo was the first Köner album I was exposed to, so it holds a place a bit closer to my heart than any of his other albums. I’ve chosen it for the list but any of the man’s early work – Permafrost, Nunatak, Daiken – would be fine in its place. The important thing – a no-brainer really – is that something of Köner’s had to be included among the lot. Teimo is still my personal favourite, and after countless listens I’m still noticing things that I’ve managed to miss before, like some nearly inaudible scrape or buzz that seems to manifest from the ether, as if the music is an organism that grows and changes over time. Absolutely essential drone music.
Phill Niblock – Nothing to Look at Just a Record
(India Navigation, 1982)
I know what you’re thinking. I cheated. Yes, I admit it, Nothing to Look at Just a Record was not originally released within the last 30 years. Allow me to explain why it ended up here. I decided to include Phill Niblock’s debut, not as a desperate attempt to fill the 20th spot – any number of albums that didn’t quite make the cut could have easily slipped into the 20th position – but because it is, to this reviewer, too integral a stepping stone toward a wider critical acknowledgement of experimental music to not feature in this list. So, despite the math not quite adding up, Nothing to Look at… snuck its way in. After all, this is meant to be an introduction to drone music, and as anyone who is familiar with the artist will tell you, Niblock’s music is about as pure a musical representation one can find to the textbook definition of drone.
At just under 45 minutes, Nothing to Look at… is Niblock’s shortest solo album. The two tracks – to be later included in A Young Person’s Guide to Phill Niblock – are both centred around the trombone. The pieces here meet at the intersection of recorded tape music and live performance, where a single ‘A’ note was played at various octaves, captured separately over eight recording channels and mixed down into two tracks (stereo) with breathing spaces removed. The finished works are ones that truly benefit from high volume playback, where overtones interlace to form a complex sculpture of sound. To date, this is still the most dynamic, lush, deceptively simple and most meticulously crafted drone music there is.