Talk Amongst the Trees: Eluvium’s Guitar Drone Opus Remastered and Reissued

Matthew Cooper is the name behind Eluvium, and if his 15 year tenure with Temporary Residence has proven anything, it’s that his modernized take on classical and ambient music has been anything but one-dimensional. Eluvium recordings generally favour a relaxed piano – see the piece “Don’t Get Any Closer” as a choice example – but for my money, the real magic happens when Cooper limits himself to little more than a guitar. Where the majority of his albums fall somewhere between chamber music and ambient lonerism, Talk Amongst the Trees is to date Cooper’s most restrained and true-to-form drone work. The beginning of 2017 marked a remastering and reissue of the album, its first ever vinyl pressing since its CD only release in 2005. I must say, as a milestone to kick off the year, Temporary Residence certainly nailed it.

TRR269_LP_Jacket_RE11439Eluvium – Talk Amongst the Trees
(Temporary Residence Limited, 2005, RE RM 2017)

As far as how it sounds, Talk Amongst the Trees is not hard to grasp. Each piece revolves around a unique guitar pattern, usually either a series of elongated tones or a few strummed chords, which is then looped and slightly tweaked as the track progresses. Whether you’re listening to the album for the first time or the ninetieth time, some tracks remain cinematic, uplifting, while others feel more neutral, while others still take the listener to a place of somber reflection. On the surface, there is nothing cryptic about this music, nothing lurking beneath a veil of noise, just simple, guitar sourced ambient music with nothing to hide. It wouldn’t surprise me then if some Eluvium fans wrote this one off a little too early, pinning it as overly simplistic. I believe the contrary to be true, and after years of listening to this record, I still marvel at it’s ability to keep my attention despite its straightforwardness.

How Cooper weaves minute sonic changes into these pieces is a big part of why they avoid stagnancy. These changes, that happen slowly over time, give the album a subtle sense of propulsion, but where these songs end up is never all that far from where they begin. The album’s sprawling and masterfully crafted centrepiece, “Taken,” is the most overt example, where no more than four chords are strummed on a guitar and set to loop for nearly 17 minutes. Within that time many things happen, but it’s hard to ever pin point exactly what they are. The piece gains momentum and plenty of texture is woven into the mix, but after awhile it’s as though the foundation of the music starts slipping away, the various elements pulling apart from instability. As if recounting the history of a star, “Taken” rises, peaks, implodes, and eventually dwarfs, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Nothing else on Talk Amongst the Trees quite reaches the grandeur of “Taken,” but that hardly reduces the album’s potency. “Everything to Come” pulsates with high register tones that rise and fall in an effortless dance that makes one easily forget that they’re listening to a loop. The 10+ minute opener, “New Animals From the Air,” with its hypnotic backwards guitar and enveloping bass, sounds all the more captivating in its remastered form, where the original’s distracting peak distortion is removed. Like an endless warm blanket, a pillowy cloud, or an opiate fog that the cover alludes to, Talk Amongst the Trees is an album to lie back and get lost in. And although Cooper foregoes the rigour of old school minimalism, along with the compositional structure of acts like Stars of the Lid, he’s certainly extracted a unique take on the inexhaustible drone. Here’s to celebrating this reissue and to hoping for Eluvium’s overdue return to the metaphysical guitar.

A Slowly Darkening Sky: Keith Berry’s Elixir

It’s fitting that 14 years after the release of The Golden Boat, Keith Berry’s debut for Trente Oiseaux, that he should find a home for his new album on the Brooklyn based Invisible Birds label. After all, it was those auspicious releases from the likes of Fransisco López, Bernhard Günter, Steve Roden, Richard Chartier, and Berry himself, that in part inspired Matthew Swiezynski to dream up Invisible Birds in the first place. The scope of Swiezynski’s label has been anything but strictly defined, birthed from the notions of transcendence, memory and nothingness, and how they might link – romantically or otherwise – to landscape and birdsong. These notions, presented cryptically on the Introduction section of the label’s website, are but a glimpse into the complicated workings of a mind that, above all, seems unflinchingly dedicated to the boundless possibilities of art.

ElixirKeith Berry – Elixir
(Invisible Birds, 2017)

Invisible Birds is in no hurry to shed it’s more romantic ideals, particularly the one that finds endless allure within the mysteries of the human psyche. In this regard, Elixir is another unearthed cave for which the listener can explore. The last I heard from Berry was his limited run picture disc from 2008, The Cartesian Plane. While that album’s finely-tuned drone work swayed toward the emotionally ambiguous, Elixir sees Berry take more risks with mood, opening his sound up to a wider spectrum of feeling. It’s not necessarily happiness that these track’s instill, more like an elevated calm, a contentedness. It’s not the feeling of watching the sunset, but the one where the sun has long set and you just can’t seem to divert your attention away from the slowly darkening sky just above the horizon.

I cannot help but draw comparisons here to the work of GAS, Wolfgang Voigt’s now legendary ambient / minimal techno project from the late 90’s. Voigt will be releasing a new GAS album this year – the first in 17 years – so his music has inevitably worked it’s way back into my listening regime. On Elixir, Berry’s drones are as airy as voigt’s, but he seems perfectly content in foregoing any musical element that one would typically associate with rhythm. I’m reminded, too, of Tim Hecker’s earlier releases for Alien8, back when his music was a lot simpler and before he became hooked on the use of compression algorithms to beef up his sound. On that note, Berry’s music is certainly about doing more with less, where even a small misstep in any given piece might’ve changed the mood to something less desired.

Attached to the release of Elixir is a paragraph by Berry regarding his process in making the album. The parts that struck me were his mention of “a heavily granular processed sound” and his explorations of the “permutations that digital editing software allows.” Perhaps these statements would be of no surprise to someone with a lot more software experience than myself, but to me, they seem in almost direct contradiction to how effortlessly this music flows, how organically the elements seem to come together. Sure, this is electronic music, and I get the difference between a computer making music and using a computer to make music, but this particular music sounds as natural as the flow of water over a creek bed.

Much like Voigt, who claimed that his intention behind GAS was to “bring the forest to the disco, or vice-versa,” one gets a similar sense of amalgamated intent behind Berry’s work. However, Berry’s intentions have never felt as cut-and-dried, and unlike Voigt, he’s been lurking more or less in the shadows for 15 years, emerging every so often with an album that shines like a beacon among the year’s long list of drone releases. When 2017 eventually rolls to a close, you can bet that Elixir, too, will stand out among the lot.

Secret Pyramid’s Distant Works

Following in suit to last week’s post, we now delve into a pair of releases from another shadowy figure among the Pacific Northwest experimental underground. Amir Abbey, the name behind Secret Pyramid, has steadily developed his solo project since its humble beginnings roughly eight years ago. At that time we saw the fallout of his band Solars (his two man psych-drone outfit with Daniel Colussi) and the self released Ghosts cdr. The reason behind the Solars break-up remains opaque at best, but, nonetheless seemed to light a fire under Abbey to aggressively pursue his own sound.

In Abbey’s musical pursuits he’s accomplished multiple releases on Cincinnati’s Students of Decay label, and has performed not once, but twice at Montreal’s Mutek. According to the artist, the forthcoming Secret Pyramid album, Two Shadows Collide, is finished and will be released sometime this summer. For now, let’s look back at the two part (thus far) Distant Works series from the Secret Pyramid oeuvre.

secret_pyramid_dw1Secret Pyramid – Distant Works I
(Proposition, 2013)

On the bandcamp page for Distant Works I, Abbey describes the album as a more minimalist approach to his 2011 release, The Silent March. The material here came from the same sessions as The Silent March, and is composed of analog tape loops. Not surprisingly, the opening minute brings to mind the work of William Basinski – particularly his lesser known but fantastic album, El Camino Real. Where Camino meditates on a single loop for close to an hour, “Distance 1,” the tape’s A side, slowly meanders through a series of looped vignettes. Vignettes are strung together, but the transitions between them are nearly undetectable, swallowed up in the gravity of the overall movement of sound.

“Distance II,” while not a monumental departure from the opening side, does see a change in focus. The piece builds from an inaudible beginning, gaining momentum with swelling guitar permutations and rising amplitude. To work as well as it does, a piece like “Distance II” could not exist without a certain level of ambiguity. Similar to Secret Pyramid’s other albums, the sounds herein exist in the sweet spot between over-contextualization and lack of intention, where the artist’s hand is present but never weighs all that heavily. On Distant Works I we are presented with a familiar drift, but one with intention and a sense of movement behind it. Even the most minimal music needs to take the listener somewhere – whether it’s to an open field or along a path – and this understanding is what edges Abbey’s work in front of plenty of so-called ambient musicians.

secret_pyramid_dw2Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II
(Proposition, 2016)

Last year’s Distant Works II is Secret Pyramid’s most recent album, and shows a staggering diversity of sound compared to past work. Where previous releases saw mostly tape loops and prepared guitar, Distant Works II opens the Secret Pyramid netherworld to a range of sources that include piano, strings, synths, field recordings and an early electronic instrument know as the Ondes Martenot (similar to a theramin in sound, the Ondes allows for the player to seamlessly glide along pitches using a ring that is worn on the right hand. The ring is attached to a string and sits horizontally in front of a keyboard).

To a piece of minimal music, a more diverse palette of sound sources can be as devastating as it can be enriching. Luckily, Abbey, who at this point would certainly be aware of the shortcomings of overdoing it, shows plenty of restraint with his new toys. Rather than the side-long slab approach, Abbey chose to break the album up into seven movements. The three tracks that are under two minutes here gingerly trod new sonic territory for Abbey, incorporating field recordings of wind and rain that sound like they’ve been given some tape treatment. This also includes the opener, clearly featuring the above mentioned Ondes, giving the album a distinct – though ultimately brief – touch of cosmological new age.

It’s the album’s two longer tracks that steal the show. The centrepiece, “IV,” has a backbone of one of Abbey’s cleanest synth drones, but soon corrals familiar tape hiss alongside wavering, distorted tones, whose source one can only guess at. “VII,” the final movement, is one of Abbey’s finest tracks to date, striking a perfect equilibrium with the rough-hewn elements of his sound and another spellbinding loop. In an interview from April of 2014, Abbey mentions how he’s gradually becoming more and more comfortable with the recording process. With comfort comes confidence, and if Distant Works II is a precursor to the trajectory of Secret Pyramid’s sound, then that confidence is only going to make it stronger.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 2)

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_distortionKevin 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_periodJonathan Coleclough – Period
(Anomalous, 2001)

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_door_possibilitiesAlio 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_atropineVelvet 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_distanceRolf 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_kiriLawrence English – Kiri No Oto
(Touch, 2008)

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_eclipseAeolian 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_beautyVikki 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_koner_teimoThomas 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_just_record

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.

Drone: A 20 Album Introduction to the Past 30 Years (Part 1)

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_broadcastJohn Duncan – Phantom Broadcast
(Allquestions, 2002)

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 – Eye of the Storm
(Streamline, 1999)

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_ballasted_orchestra
Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra
(Kranky, 1997)

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_deep_listening
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.

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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_infinite_sadnessKyle 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 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.

chalk_coleclough_sumacJonathan 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.

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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_soliloquyNurse 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.

When Basinski Met Chartier

In 2004 the tape loop ambient composer William Basinski teamed up with reductionist electronic sound artist Richard Chartier on Untitled 1-3. For years it seemed as though the album was a one-off collaboration from the two stalwarts. In 2013, however, Aurora Liminalis was released, proving their work together was not quite done. This year the world was treated to Divertessement, the highest profile collaboration between the two artists yet.

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William Basinski

Chartier

Richard Chartier

To the uninitiated ear Basinski and Chartier’s respective catalogues tread the same path. However, aside from a shared penchant for expansive ambient composition, the two artists are quite different. Basinski has for nearly fifteen years now exclusively made music from analog tape loops – the exception being his short-wave experiments – exhibiting a keen ear for detecting minute changes in his looped fragments that he presents as long, uninterrupted pieces.

Chartier’s process is much harder to pin down, and, as the artist has stated himself in interviews, is not a requirement in order to gain something from the listening experience. Chartier is often labelled a reductionist for good reason, as his sound pieces are usually hyper-minimal, extremely quiet, and often develop imperceptibly to the listener over a long period of time. Generally, turning Chartier albums up louder than usual helps reveal delicate yet complex sonic worlds that once existed purely in the mind of their creator. Chartier’s music, both under his own name and the alias Pinkcourtesyphone, has for over a decade remained fascinating and ever evolving. Alongside names like Richard Garet, Asher, Jason Kahn, William Basinski, Taylor Deupree, Jim Haynes and Oren Ambarchi, Richard Chartier is one of America’s preeminent contemporary minimalist composers.

What one would expect from any successful collaboration is like clockwork between these two. Untitled and Aurora saw the meeting of Basinski’s and Chartier’s respective styles at a comfortable middle point: Basinski’s loops buried deeper in the mix and Chartier’s hushed atmospherics dialled up a notch or two. Compared to this year’s Divertessement, however, the first two efforts feel formless and all-together rudimentary. Divertessement sees the two artists hitting their collaborative stride, as multiple listens help reveal what each player brought to the floor. Ghostly tape melodies surface at the parting of noxious atmospherics, occasionally the movements dipping into near silence before emerging again as a swirling dark mass. Part II commences as what sounds like a church organ heard from a cave on some distant planet. Soon, the far off melodies rise through palpable tape hiss, giving way to restless bursts of analog noise as if from a child’s nightmare of clowns and carnivals (think a more subdued Maurizio Bianchi).

The beautiful thing about collaborations is hearing both compromise and innovation, and, in the case of Basinski and Chartier, two artists that are willing to step outside of their usual bounds to challenge themselves. On Divertessement, they’ve done just that. And if the album is any indication of the direction these two will continue to grow, we’re bound to hear more stellar work from them in the future.

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Untitled 1-3
Spekk/Line, 2004/2008

Basinski_Chartier2

Aurora Liminalis
Line, 2013

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Divertissement
Important Records, 2015

Richard Chartier Offical
William Basinski Official