Sunn O))): Kannon
Southern Lord (2015)
Don your robes, light your torches and bow down to the Drone; Sunn O))) are back, in black.
Kannon is the sound of pagan rituals, full moons peering through dense forest foliage, firelight, candles and old gods rising from the murk. Hooded figures huddle over their instruments in the mist. Dense waves of distorted drone impregnate your body and rattle your organs. Your joints threaten to come loose. Your only option is succumbing to the meditative trance placed on you.
For almost 20 years now Sunn O))) have traded in down-tuned guitars playing snail-paced riffs at bowel shattering volumes, each note drawn out into a feedback drenched drone. Their music is thick and textured like impasto paint, a sound that takes physical form. They’ve spent time embellishing this concept with all manner of decoration, taking the sound as far as they can, but Kannon strips back the guff and returns to their roots.
The choirs, chamber orchestras and FX from 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions have been stripped right back and buried in the mix. Anything non-guitar is present for atmosphere only, a mere canvas for the band’s blackened drones.
Regular collaborator Attila Csihar returns to provide a range of bizarre incantations and proves what a versatile contributor he is to the realms of extreme and experimental music. He floats between monochromatic chanting, and textural growls reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing or the extraterrestrial from the Predator movie franchise. He is theatrical, cinematic and incredibly evocative.
I was enamoured by the ambition of Monoliths and Dimensions on its release. You had to admire the balls that Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson showed by taking the project so far from its core. But eventually I returned to those earthier, grittier and frankly more contemplative early recordings. On Kannon, Sunn O))) sound like they too have realised simplicity is a blessing. This record is a fucking cracker.
Frank Bretschneider: Isolation
Minimalist music demands patience and focus. There is no room for casual listening. It’s all or nothing. Submit and engage, or don’t bother at all. Isolation is the perfect name for a record that can only truly be enjoyed in solitude, isolated from your surroundings.
Slip on some headphones, press play and sink into Frank Bretschneider’s muffled world of microdrones and flocks of static. Follow him down under the water, where the reverb has been sucked out of all sound. A singular hum; a subtle bass vibration; a wisp of digital feedback. These tiny noises resonate in the very centre of your brain. There are no bearing points. They simply exist, vibrating gently, keeping you buoyant but senseless.
But this isn’t the extreme end of minimalism explored by the likes of Chicago veteran Kevin Drumm (check out his awe inspiring Trouble record released in 2014). Every so often Isolation’s facade cracks and reality snaps back into focus. Like the moment halfway through White Light when Bretschneider suddenly cuts off his sustained note and speckles of reverb ricochet off into space, opening up your entire sound world.
The dance between such subtle sounds plays tricks on your mind. At times you hear melody, faintly, over there in the corner amongst the space dust. But as quick as you notice, it’s gone again like chasing butterflies in a dream.
That’s how Bretschneider keeps your attention. He’s a tease. Sounds bloom into stains of hiss and static, then dry out into steamy tendrils of nothingness again. Repeated listens reveal that Isolation isn’t quite the minimalist work you might have originally thought.
Michael Vallera: Distance
Opal Tapes (2015)
Where on earth did this strange, very strange record come from? Turns out it came from Chicago. I’d never heard of Micheal Vallera until a few weeks ago when I bought this off Boomkat on a whim. I’d never heard of his alias COiN, or the other act he’s in called Cleared. But I will definitely be investigating both of these based on my current obsession with Distance.
This would have to be one of the most unique records I’ve heard in ages. A sticky molasses of drones, sound effects and icy textures poured over sparse, jagged rhythms. The effect is utterly compelling, even more so when you discover that those synthesisers you think you’re hearing are actually a treated guitar.
On Animal he combines the spiteful tails of rattlesnakes with an industrial pulse and shimmering ambience. Either Infinity rides the tropes of Dub out to new realms of space and time, under an atonal drone sure to give even the most hardened stoner the creeps. Meanwhile, the title track smashes a hive of nervous snare drums into a cloud of low end numbness that constantly threatens to storm but never pays off.
Vallera knows how to build his compositions without relying on crescendo for effect. By subtly removing one element and quietly introducing another, he manages to make each track evolve with out you realising it. This is solitary music that demands attention.
Distance reminds me of Demdike Stare’s darker, more urban moments. Or the frigid landscapes that Fabio Orsi and Valerio Cosi created on Thoughts Melt into the Air. The work of Vangelis is buried somewhere in here as well. And yet this record is its own beast entirely, even the oddly genderless cover art is intriguing. Distance sounds like the crisp blues of icebergs on some alien planet in a distant galaxy. Enjoy the cold.
Stephen O’Malley: Gruidés
Regulars of this site and The Antidote Podcast will know that I worship at the altar of Stephen O’Malley. Whether it’s Sunn O))), or his stints in Khanate and Burning Witch, or his myriad collaborations over the years I’m down with it all.
O’Malley’s debut orchestral composition is another cracker. Recorded in a Parisian church and performed by a 35 piece avant-orchestra, Gruidés gives modern classical music a divine drone makeover. This is quiet and contemplative music made for headphone nightmares.
Kicking off with percussive clash, Gruidés settles gently into a single note sustained by a range of instruments for an extravagant 8 minutes. The contrasting timbres of strings and reeds drift in and out of focus, giving sonic texture to O’malley’s minimalist palette. Tightly wound toms and lazy cymbals strike at random intervals reminiscent of the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack. But, there’s nothing schlocky about Gruidés. The vibe is unsettling in a Hitchcockian manner.
Gradually each instrument begins peeling away from the initial drone and new notes create layers of dissonance. The effect is cinematic in the extreme. It’s uncomfortable but also dripping with Gothic romance.
It’s unfair to say that not much else happens during Gruidés 35 minutes; the devil is in the raw sound of humans playing acoustic instruments. Like the best of Kevin Drumm’s minimalist work, subtlety is what makes it compelling. O’Malley shows amazing restraint as he slowly, very slowly, increases the tension. He gives the listener the briefest respite in Gruidés closing moments when a bombastic brass section floods in, accompanied by something vaguely resembling a rhythm. Patience is always rewarded, if only for a moment.
Mohammad: Som Sakrifis
On the other end of the Cello spectrum to Okkyung Lee, is this stellar release on everyone’s favorite label right now, Pan. Mohammad is comprised of three Greek artists Nikos Veliotis, Costantino Kiriakos, and ILIOS. I know of ILIOS through his Antifrost label but can’t say I’m familiar with the other two guys, however that may change.
What we have here is a brilliant example of the power of drone, illustrated by the haunting, deep beauty of Cello and Contra Bass. Where Okkyhung Lee attacks her instrument, Veliotis and Kiriakos coax long and considered notes from their muse while ILIOS takes a backseat, colouring the background with skittery electronics.
The Cello is the perfect drone instrument. In many ways, Som Sakrifis is like an acoustic Sunn O))) trip, but darker and more melancholic (don’t ask me how this can be darker than Sunn O))), but it is). Som Sakrifis is mournful music for solo listening at night, with the lights off.
My favorite moments are when Veliotis and Kiriakos violently and suddenly shift notes, their fingers and bows scraping against the strings like they’re actually tearing sound out of their instruments. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time. There’s also great beauty in the way they often play in harmony, each musician following their own narrative, settling on the same note for a few beats and then sliding tones and semi tones apart which creates a restless energy.
When this sort of music is done right the effect is completely immersive and deeply personal. It’s no coincidence that drone forms the basis of various religious ‘musics’; it can be a spiritual experience. Anyone with even the remotest interest in drone and minimalist music needs to check this record out. In a genre filled with Souncloud and Bandcamp mediocrity, Mohammad are the real deal.
Kareem: Porto Ronco
The Death of Rave (2013)
It begins by oozing out of your speakers, and gently simmering in a murky puddle. Bubbles of radio miasma drift off and burst quietly in the shadows. The atmosphere is warm but airless and desperate. A series of electronic groans takes over and leads us towards a beautiful Kevin Drumm style drone, power lines crackle in the distance while feedback rings in and out of consciousness. The drone becomes more menacing, discordant, rattling. It mutates through crushing distortion, a static-y hum and detuned television reception before quietly drifting away on a single, ringing note.
This record is fucking amazing. Seriously. Patrick Stottrop, aka Kareem has been around since the 90s making spooky hip hop riddims and damaged industrial techno but it’s this drastic change of direction that’s grabbed my attention. Apparently inspired by a deceased relative and named after small European town where his grandfather lived, Porto Ronco is void of rhythm but overflows with ambience. It’s a unique record but if you think of Mike Shiflet, maybe a little of Ben Frost and the least menacing moments of Haxan Cloak you’re somewhere in the same shadow as Kareem on Porto Ronco.
I’ve been listening to the 45 minute mp3 version of Porto Ronco, but there’s also an edited, 30 minute version available on vinyl. Would this shorter, broken up version lose its effect? I don’t know, maybe. You can pick up both for the one price on Boomkat. Do yourself a favour.