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.
Ensemble Pearl: Self Titled
Drag City (2013)
Stephen O’Malley seems to release a new collaborative record every other day. The guy is prolific, and it’s not like he’s banging out ‘noise’ tracks on a broken synthesiser in his bedroom either. He creates intricate and highly considered music, as described in this fantastic video interview at the Red Bull Music Academy. In general we’ve come to expect a trademark sound from O’Malley and the projects he’s involved in; that of crushing and meditative doom ambience. There are exceptions though.
For example, last year’s stunning and underrated KTL record (his collaboration with with Editions Mego boss Peter Rehberg) eschewed doom for a much more delicate combination of acoustic and electronic drones. Ensemble Pearl takes another surprising left hand path.
Perhaps it’s the presence of Boris collaborators Atsuo and Michio Kurihara, bringing that group’s occasional post rock leanings to the table. Or maybe it’s something to do with Ensemble Pearl’s fourth member Bill Herzog. Whatever the case, O’Malley’s stamp isn’t as significant on this record. For one, distorted guitars are kept to a minimum. Ensemble Pearl emphasises drums, bass and clean guitars with none of the dissonance you’d expect. It’s surprisingly rhythmic, with guitars following the drums’ lead through a trip hop paced, psychedelic hoe down. Atsuo’s kit drips with reverb, creating a dubby vibe that’s most enjoyable.
The sparse arrangements make me think of Boren & Der Club of Gore minus the foreboding anxiety. Ensemble Pearl is a warm and dreamlike experience with crisp and spacious production. Tracks like Wray tackle a palette of xylophone-like synthesisers to create an ambience that’s almost heavenly. Wray is among the most beautiful pieces O’Malley has been involved in, calling to mind the more abstract moments of bands like Godspeed you! Black Emperor!
The other reference point for Ensemble Pearl is O’Malley’s beloved Earth, although this time around the influence appears to be Dylan Carson’s later interest in droning Americana. But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison because Ensemble Pearl conjures up much more ethereal emotions than Earth’s parched and lonely landscapes. This record is a real creeper, and by falling in love with it I’ve renewed my excitement in O’Malley’s sonic experimentation. I can’t recommend Ensemble Pearl enough.
Black Boned Angel: Verdun
Riot Season (2009)
If you’re a music nerd, like myself, there are times when a record can be too intense. In a good way. Something capable of profound effects on the psyche. I’ve had a copy of Black Boned Angel’s Verdun floating around for a while now but I’ve only managed to listen to it a handful of times because despite its beauty and awe-inspiring power, I find it totally draining. And that’s exactly why I’m going to recommend this – how many musicians are truly capable of affecting you like that?
As one extended track with three distinct movements, Verdun kicks off with plodding, cavernous drums and uber slowed down guitars. The pace is blackened and funeral like. The composition mutates into a storm of chiming guitars playing arpeggios at a snail’s pace before returning to doom laden power chords, underscored by a ghostly choir singing hymns from beyond the grave. Everything is murky and oppressive, tragic like an event you don’t really want to remember. Not exactly depressing, but definitely mournful.
In fact, mournful is a very apt description given the themes of war that run through the album (the battle of Verdun being a World War One event), though I doubt that today’s soldiers in Iraq will be replacing their Slayer records with this any time soon. Black Boned Angel, featuring Campbell Kneale of Birchville Cat Motel fame, aren’t highlighting the aggression inherent to war. This is about futility, loss and pointless destruction. Verdun closes with the sounds of a battle field; bullets whizzing by, bombs exploding, choppers thundering around over head and men screaming in the distance. Proof that the most horrific sound on earth is man itself.
Fabio Orsi / Valerio Cosi: Thoughts Melt in the Air
I like buying albums based purely on a whim, recommendation or review. I like the thrill of surprise; sometimes they suck, and other times they blow my mind, just like Thoughts Melt in the Air did.
This collaboration between two Italian drone artists is the exact opposite of Sunn O))) and those early Earth records. There are no bowel-loosening, distorted guitars and smoke machines. Instead, everything shimmers around the treble clef, humming lazily in your ears. It’s a subtle concoction of Sitar-like instruments, keys, clean guitars and effects pedals. It’s fucking beautiful, and it reminds me of Yellow Swans’ At All Ends.
The album opens with a singular hum, sounding like a light aircraft caressing the horizon. An augmented drone of string instruments fades in, like an orchestra tuning up and begins to pulse slightly in volume. There’s a faint noise in the background, an occasional hiss that slips into a rhythm and eventually materialises as an unsteady beat that never gets loud enough to become the focus of the composition. Strange yelps and moans lurch out of the clouds, and then disappear. Reverb rings out from everywhere. Piece by piece the elements fade out again until there’s nothing left but silence.
The following track, Thoughts begins similarly but this time with a haunting whir that sounds like an electronic reproduction of someone playing glass rims in a cave. It’s like light calling out from another dimension. This time the beat is more conventional, all tom toms and high-hats, but still buried way down in the mix as an anchor keeping the whole piece together.
Orsi and Cosi play with these delicate drones over four extended tracks, never once building to any forceful conclusion. Thoughts Melt in the Air is about restraint, and micro shifts in sound that create significant changes in atmosphere. Apparently both these guys have prolific back catalogues as solo artists – Orsi experiments with Guitar, and Cosi fucks with the saxophone – which is news to these ears but you can bet I’ll be hunting down more of their stuff.
Every time I listen to this album I get lost. And when the record finishes, and my brain registers that the dreamy soundscapes are over, I come back again not really knowing where I’ve gone.