Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Music That Will Swallow All Misery Whole

Give me noise and feel the drone!

This has been a labour of love. I've been wanting to write up a tribute to drone music for ages, but have never been sure of how to go about it. Drone is so vast, so unpredictable and so out-there as to defy definition and categorisation. But fuck me, the world needs to hear more of it! It's actually been on the rise in the musical underground, and you can even get albums by the likes of Emeralds at HMV on London's Oxford Street. So, drone is on the up, and the more innocent ears are introduced to this strange and difficult latter-day psychedelia, the better.

I don't want to go through a massive history of drone music. That's for other, more scholarly, people to do. Suffice to say that it has existed since the dawn of music itself, whether through Tibetan chanting, Indian traditional music, Japanese tam-tams or Celtic bagpipes. The sheer immensity of the sounds produced imbued drone with a sense of the spiritual, as if the music was channeling the souls of dead ancestors and wrathful gods.

By the time the 20th century rocked up, all this was a thing of the past. Generations of opera, concertos, folk, rock and jazz had superseded the primeval allure of drone, and it would take such controversial pioneers as LaMonte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tony Conrad (pictured below) to re-establish drone in contemporary music. Theses composers were looking to expand the boundaries of what was deemed "music", and were fascinated by notions of minimalism, repetition and distortion. This led to the creation of some of the most vital and fascinating pieces of contemporary music ever created, to which we can also add the works of Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine.

But these artists remained entrenched in the avant-garde scenes of New York, Berlin and Tokyo, loved by the Warholian elites and the intellectuals, misunderstood or ignored by the mainstream public. It's telling that the most famous avant-garde composer/singer remains Yoko Ono, and -sadly- not for her music.

Ono is actually a good reference point, for she was one of a number of these avant-garde artist/composers -along with Conrad, Takehisa Kosugi or John Cale- to see the potential in rock music and, working with John Lennon, would take great strides in marrying the two. Above all, the exploratory music of the avant-garde (which in addition to drone took in elements of found sounds, tape loops, electronic manipulation and noise) touched a cord with the intellectuals and students of the West who were simultaneously (we are now in the mid- to late-sixties) embracing hippie culture and rock'n'roll. Out of this potent brew would come drone's great renaissance, as a separate genre unto itself within rock and pop music.

Perhaps the most famous art-rock act of all time, The Velvet Underground (right), were born in the midst of New York's effervescent art and avant-garde scene. They were the proteges of maverick art superstar Andy Warhol, and included in their midst none other than John Cale, a Welsh violinist, guitarist and experimentalist who had previously featured in LaMonte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music/Dream Syndicate experimental supergroup (which also featured Tony Conrad and Marian Zazeela, among many others), one of the forerunner bands of electronic drone.

The VU would get zero recognition during their "lifetime", but quickly rose to cult superstardom as their influence extended beyond their arty origins and into mainstream pop and rock. They were never a drone band per se, but Cale's influence is keenly felt across their first two albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat), as repetitive guitar riffs and motorik drum beats act as the blankest of canvases for the arcane and twisted lyrics of singer Lou Reed. This is no more keenly felt than on their magnum opus 'Sister Ray', a 17-minute thumping drone-rock masterpiece in which drummer Mo Tucker keeps up a relentlessly simplistic and monotonous drum rhythm whilst Cale and Reed buzz along discordantly on their axes. This track, which would have a massive influence on a generation of refuseniks, punks and garage rockers, lays the foundation of drone in rock music, for it never once deviates from its repetitive path, keeping up the implacable rhythm and stark melody without altering, colouring or embellishing it with solos, flourishes or texture. Not drone, but surely the essence of it.

Interestingly, the band's former "chanteuse", German model Nico, would go on to have a fascinating solo career in which her instrument of choice would be the harmonium, a particularly powerful pump organ keyboard often used in traditional Indian music. Indian music regularly features drone as a key element (sitars, sarods, sarangi, etc). Indeed, whilst drone instruments like the bagpipes became obsolete in Europe, Asian musicians continued to embrace their traditional roots and tools. Following The Beatles' very public embracing of all things Indian, the West was introduced to the country's many musical delights, another element that facilitated the revival of drone in popular music.

But, typically, it would be away from the musical hubs that were America and the UK that a genre as difficult as drone would flourish. Whilst it would only appear sporadically in those countries' pop music (usually in psychedelic, fusion and underground music), it was becoming a staple in two other territories: Japan and Germany.

For a proper and comprehensive overview of the cultural and musical context of these two countries in the sixties and seventies, I cannot recommend Julian Cope's two books Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler highly enough. There were definite similarities between both territories, as the radical youth and student bodies rejected the imperialism and intolerance of their parents' generations, that had led to war and genocide, instead projecting further back into the past to the traditional music and culture of their forefathers. They also more often than not showed a reluctance to embrace the "new cultural imperialism" of America and -to a lesser extent- Britain, quite often motivated by Communist ideals. Add to this the fact that both countries were havens for free jazz and experimental / avant-garde music (Stockhausen was a German, whilst Japan was home to some of the world's most vibrant Fluxus artists), and you got a strange mix of modernism and traditionalism, one that embraced "rock" as a form of revolt against the squares whilst also trying to take it in new directions, well removed from what was going on in the US or the UK. The result was that the underground music scenes of Japan and Germany from '68 to '75 were quite probably the most fertile and innovative in the world. And this was the ideal context for Drone music to thrive.

And even at this early stage (we're talking 1970, here), the two basic strands of modern drone (or dronology, as we're apparently supposed to call it) were becoming apparent.

On the one hand, drone would be a music of projected futurism, the vast aural soundscapes used to evoke 21st century cities and machinery. This would become even more frequent in later years, as synthesizers and computers became the norm, to the extent that drone has become blended with ambient music and electronica. On the other hand, drone was connected to traditional music and even folk, with its proponents obsessed with long-forgotten Gods and pagan religions, much in the way heavy metal bands and folk artists would be from Black Sabbath, Comus and Led Zeppelin right up to modern acts like Agalloch and Tenhi. Dark ambience and drone, usually created with electric guitars, deep bass and subdued percussion, would become another way for neo-Wodenists and wannabe shamen to re-connect with their ancestral roots.

In Germany, the greatest exponents of modernist drone were undoubtedly Berlin duo Cluster. They evolved out of the German capital's fervent underground scene, one that also included Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel and Conrad Schnitzler (who was a member of pre-Cluster act Kluster before going solo), all of whom also added elements of drone into their works. Indeed ART's importance as a precursor to drone is almost as substantial as The Velvet Underground's, as guitarist Manuel Gottsching was a master of the sustained one-note solo, whilst drummer Klaus Schulze (also an ex-Tangerine Dream member) alternated his octopus-like skins-pounding with electronic exploration on organ and synth, creating vast, shimmering ambient/drone epics that would take whole sides of ART's albums before taking things even further as a solo artist (see below).

Cluster seen with Michael Rother as part of seminal motorik act Harmonia

Between them, all these bands and artists helped launch a strand of what would later be dubbed in the UK as "krautrock" known as kosmische, and it was distinctive in its spacey, psychedelic approach to music (quite removed from the experimental free-jazz-inspired rock of West Germany's Can and Faust, or the robotic funk of Neu! and early Kraftwerk). In this, drone was fundemental, thanks to its expansiveness and slow pace. In this, Berlin's drone was a truly unique form of psychedelic music.

With Ash Ra Tempel and Schnitzler's Eruption having tentatively shown the way, the first great German drone opus would be Cluster's Cluster 71, released in January of that year. Although it completely bombed and would later spend decades unreleased in any format, there can be no denying the impact Cluster 71 had. It has only 3 tracks, one taking up and entire side of vinyl (ah, the good old days), and none dipping under 7 minutes in length! All this performed by just three individuals - Cluster's main duo Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, and producer Conny Plank, who would go on to greater success as Kraftwerk's producer.

Describing Cluster 71 is tough, to be honest. None of the reviews I'd read of it, be they by Cope or no less than Wire magazine, prepared me for the sounds that emanated from my speakers after I pressed "play" the first time.

The music of Cluster is immense, planet-sized, titanic. Huge swathes of buzzing electronics rumble and shudder over you, cold and mechanical, like being caught inside the circuitry of some gigantic futuristic super-computer (intriguingly, for such serious music, the one I immediately think of is the computer from Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which perhaps highlights the subtle humour and sense of humanity hidden under Cluster's immense robotic sound).

Yet, for all its modernism and futurism, Cluster 71 intriguingly features not one synthesizer! It's all done through saturated guitars, distorted organs and bank upon bank of oscillators and sine-wave generators. That it sounds so ahead of its time is testament to the visionary talents of Roedelius, Moebius and Plank. Cluster would go on to release a spate of amazing electro-drone albums over the next decade or so, even collaborating with Brian Eno and performing with Neu! guitarist Michael Rother as part of the much under-appreciated Harmonia (whose Deluxe album is a masterpiece of motorik electronic pop-rock), and are even still going today. Theire recent epic live drone-a-thon Berlin 07 is well worth checking out to show how well these absolute pioneers have weathered the storms of age.

Cluster 71, already itself influenced by early Tangerine Dream and Eruption (plus their own work as Kluster), led the charge, and were quickly followed. Not to say everyone copied them, but rather that the ferile cultural climate in Germany at the time saw great ideas come to the fore simultaneously.

Tangerine Dream had already dabbled in elements of drone through leader Edgar Froese's buzzing guitar style and Conny Schnitzler's cello and violin on their debut, Electronic Meditation, and expanded into electronic ambience on the follow-up, 1971's Alpha Centauri (displaying the space/futurist concepts more fully). They really went to town, however, on 1972's Zeit, a four-track double-album so huge it remains hard to approach even today. The opener, 'Birth of Liquid Plejades' is a moog masterpiece, whilst elsewhere shimmering synths, distorted organ and moody cello helped set a tone of dark sci-fi gloominess, making Zeit their only full drone opus. They'd deliver some more drone/psych on 73's Atem, before moving into pulsating electro-ambience with the smash-hit Phaedra.

Meanwhile, former TD drummer Klaus Schulze had topped his previous comrades by unleashing his first solo album, Irrlicht, the same year as Zeit. It's a more concise, atmospheric record, featuring just Klaus on a titanic organ, and a stripped-down orchestra who apparently flipped out at the sounds they were being asked to create by the Berlin maverick. Irrlicht is massive and terrifying, two 20-minute-plus tracks of sheer cosmic drone, and as dark and twisted as the nastiest black metal. Indeed, Irrlicht sees drone going the second way I mentioned, as the title is German for 'Will-o'-the-wisp', those ghostly lights that sometimes appear over foggy marshes, anchoring it in a tradition of German folk and mythology (ghosts, pagan gods and magic, etc.) rather than futuristic sci-fi. As such, it is probably the darkest and most unsettling of all the German drone albums.

Schulze, like TD, would go on to produce a series of odd and beguiling albums that crossed over from pure drone to ambient electronica, eventually ending up in trance, techno and acid house. The follow-up to Irrlicht, however, was Cyborg, like TD's Zeit a massive double album featuring four tracks of pulsating electronics and buzzing futuristic organ. The arrival of more modern synths would deliver such forward-thinking electro albums as Blackdance, Timewind, Moondawn and X, but he'd only rarely return to the cathedral-sized drone of Irrlicht.

Drone wasn't, however, solely the domain of Berlin kosmische acts. In the remote area of Wumme in Northern Germany, wild and mysterious experimental band Faust, who had already released two bizarre albums to high critical praise (to the point that they'd soon be signed by Richard Branson's nascent Virgin label), teamed up with no less than premier New York avant-garde violinist Tony Conrad and recorded what may just be my favourite drone album of all time, Outside the Dream Syndicate. It was a match made in heaven, with bassist Jean-Herve Peron, drummer Werner Diermaier and guitarist/keyboardist Rudolf Sosna (3/4 of Faust) providing a solid, repetitive, relentless groove over which Conrad is able to unleash subtly-shifting, hypnotic treated viola. It's a single-minded album, the changes are barely perceptible or non-existant, to the point of autism. Most people I play it for go spare at the lack of clear dynamics. But therein lies the sheer, ground-breaking force of Outside the Dream Syndicate. Where albums like Irrlicht or LaMonte Young's Dream House 78'17" countered the monotony of drone by gradually cranking up the volume and/or shifting the tempos, Conrad and Faust make no such concessions to consumer sensitivities. Outside the Dream Syndicate barely moves, yet keeps going, a graceful, insistent force that is unlike 90% of anything else I've ever heard in modern music. That it remained a glorious one-off until a couple of recent live performances only adds to its aura.

Whilst Germany was embracing drone so emphatically, something similar was happening on the other side of the world in Japan. By the mid-60s, the Land of the Rising Sun had developped a vibrant underground and experimental scene, where jazz and performance art ruled supreme. At the same time, Japan's radicalised youth embraced several traditional art forms such as Kabuki and No theatre and gagaku music, whilst simultaneously rejecting the authoritarian traits that had characterized their parents' imperialist Japan. This led to new and fresh forms of art and music, where Fluxus flourished and free-jazz and avant-garde music soon replaced the be-bop and eleki surf music of the previous decade-and-a-half.

Integral to traditional Japanese music has always been the influence of Buddhist chanting, whilst instruments such as tam-tams often served to create sustained, droning textures. As these influences filtered down to Japanese youth, drone music soon became a frequent component of the underground music scene.

At the forefront of this development was a former Fluxus artist and performer called Takehisa Kosugi, who had been a founder of radical music collective Group Ongaku. At the end of the sixties, and after a stint as a TV composer, he formed the Taj Mahal Travellers, a bizarre and singularly Japanese psychedelic group who combined Kosugi's modulated violin and modern synths with traditional flutes, shamisens, harmonicas and chanting to create massive, ever-shifting soundscapes that mirrored the droning cathedral sound of Klaus Schulze's Irrlicht, without ever sounding like the German maetro's record. Instead, Taj Mahal's Travellers' music -immortalised on their July 15, 1972 and August 1974 albums- creates a mystical, ancient vibe, evoking wind-swept hills, bleak cold mountain tops and grey beaches. It's music for crumbling temples and forgotten citadels, and it takes time (luckily all their tracks hover around the 15-25' mark) to absorb all the subtle sound effects and instrumental flourishes that creep in to the main mix of Kosugi's modulated violin and his band-mates' chanting. Unlike Schulze's masterwork, or Outside the Dream Syndicate, there's a lot going on in TMT's music, and a lot of people improvising (for it's all imprvised), creating drone that is densely-layered, unpredictable and complex. So it's most interesting to note that so much time is given over to silence on the band's albums, surely a nod to John Cage's concept of "performed silence".

Taj Mahal Travellers

Parallel to his adventures with Taj Mahal Travellers -who would go on a semi-constant world tour, performing in art galleries, performance halls and natural spaces across the globe, from Sweden to America to the steps of the Taj Mahal itself- Takehisa Kosugi recorded a solo work of even greater achievement, a two-track monster drone-a-thon called Catch-Wave (released between July 15, 1972 and August 1974 in 1975). The first is an immense freak-out on violin, whilst the second track features a superimposition of Kosugi's voice as he howls a wordless chant in call-and-response fashion. It's very hard to get hold of, but I strongly urge anyone reading (all those millions of you, of course) to track it down.

Whilst Kosugi and TMT were creating all this spaced-out drone, other Japanese artists were turning to a different form of musical minimalism, inspired by The Velvet Underground and -oddly- future MOR rockers Chicago, whose first album featured a wild freak-out called "Free-form guitar".

NOISE!!! The first to succumb to the allure of rampant noise were free-jazzers like Masayuki Takayanagi and Kaoru Abe (check out the latter's superb Jazz Bed if you get the chance - it's mad! Easily equal to Peter Brotzmann's supreme noise-fest Machine Gun), before supreme underground refusenik Takashi Mizutani (below) took things to their most extreme level via his ever-changing, never-officially-recorded uber-rebel band Les Rallizes Denudes. Waves of distorted guitar over basic rhythm would become Les Rallizes' modus operandi, that and Mizutani's refusal to enter a studio, refusal to release any "official" albums and refusal to court any form of publicity, becoming rock's most obscure hermit. That Les Rallizes somehow managed to gain cult status through an avalanche of bootlegs speaks volumes (no pun intended, though this is fucking loud music) for the allure of their singular noise-rock. Beyond drone, beyond rock, even, the free-form noise of Takayanagi, Abe, Les Rallizes Denudes and Keiji Haino's much-later band Fushitsusha is not for everyone, but I find it both hugely arresting and strangely soothing.

To be honest, though, even I find noise music hard to deal with. It's not meant to be enjoyable. Free-jazz noise, of the kind espoused by Abe, Takayanagi, Brotzmann and others such as Sonny Sharrock and Evan Parker, at least sticks to typically jazz sense of modality and rhythm. It's never "easy-listening" but, Abe and Takayanagi's dual album Kaitaiteki Koukan aside, it does have structure. By the time Fushitsusha, and computer/synth noisemakers Merzbow, Pain Jerk or KK Null started their sonic assaults in the eighties and nineties, all structure was thrown out the window. Taking their cues from British and American industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Factrix, they generated harsh, atonal sonic miasmas destined to not so much be listened to, as subjected to. But there is evidently an audience for this, and whilst my main concern will be drone music, it's good to use this aside to highlight some important noise music from Japan and elsewhere.

Whilst Mizutani was exploring saturation and distortion through primordial r'n'r (the definitive bootleg record of this is the not-so-rare Live '77), one of his idols, former Velvet Underground singer/guitarist/songwriter Lou Reed decided to send the ultimate "fuck you" to his listeners and released Metal Machine Music, an hour-long, four-track double album of feedbacking guitar. Coming on the back of his massively successful Sally Can't Dance and Rock'n'Roll Animal albums, it was hard to tell if this was a terrible joke, or a work of challenging avant-garde daring. The truth is probably somewhere in-between, and critics loathed Metal Machine Music, spewing vitriol and bile over the man who created it. Typically, Reed just shrugged and moved on to something else. Over in Japan, though, rebellious refusenik Keiji Haino was taking note and would launch Fushitsusha, a band that melded Les Rallizes Denudes love for saturated riffs and warped vocals with MMM's extremism, something best encapsulated on 1994's Hisou (Pathetique).

Meanwhile, former fine art student Masami Akita started experimenting with tape loops and metal percussion, and changed his name to Merzbow (performing live, left). Before long, he'd moved into digitally-produced noise using computers, incidentally reconnecting the dots with drone music, ironically. A solo Merzbow release is heavy going, with buzzing, unchanging electronic noise filling your ears, only occasionally punctuated by bursts of feedback or metallic percussion. Personally, I have more affection for his recent collaborations with drone/doom metallers Boris (Sun Baked Snow Cave from 2005 and Rock Dream from 2007), NYC grunge emperimentalists Sonic Youth (on the excellent live collaboration Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth, which also featured free-jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafson) and 2008's electro-drone leviathan Keio Line with Richard Pinhas. Indeed, the way Merzbow has re-connected the harsh noise of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music with the seminal drone of, say, Takehisa Kosugi or Cluster is what makes him such an important artist.

So, back to drone. If its first heyday was in the early 60s, under the guidance of LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros and Charlemagne Palestine, and its second was a decade later thanks to the Germans, Japanese and occasional Anglo-Saxon musicians such as Brian Eno (check out the classic drone joint album with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp (No Pussyfooting)), Harold Budd or Steve Reich. But it's incredible to witness the extent to which it is prevalent across underground and indy music today, and this since the early 90s, making this the most sustained period of drone popularity since, well, God knows. Culloden? The Ming dynasty days?

As popular music increasingly became a business, and the major labels moved towards MOR trash from the mid-seventies onwards (apart from a slight punk and post-punk blip), drone slowly moved back to the fringes (let's not forget that Cluster's first album came out on Philips records and that (No Pussyfooting) was released on Island), becoming most frequently an element among others in industrial rock (check out Throbbing Gristle's drone-and-punk-heavy 1977 album The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle) or noise music, both of which were pretty underground, where drone would flourish.

Music has undergone a lot of change in the last two-and-a-half decades. As the mainstream became more homogenised, the underground has diverisfied. The fact is that there was only a certain extent to which every metal band, for example, could keep sticking to a Sabbath/Zeppelin/Kiss/Judas Priest/Purple formula. The arrival of punk in America gave rise to hardcore -fast-paced, urban and gritty- but even that quickly became formulaic. But, far from the gaze of the labels and media moguls, the spirit of the first Black Sabbath albums, those weird, folk-tinged heavy metal crunchers that were steeped in heathen British traditions and culture, continued to thrive. So, with common roots involved, it's no wonder a lot of indy metal owes so much to drone.

In 1993, this meeting of metal and drone was given one of its most lasting voices with the release of Seattle band Earth's second album, Earth 2. Earth were lead by a fucked-up grunge guitarist named Dylan Carlson, a friend of Kurt Cobain's, whose depressingly slow riffing style and taste for minimalism (the only other Earth member at this point was bassist Dave Harwell) created a sub-genre of doom metal called, you guessed it, drone doom. It's impact was considerable, with world-famous robed doom droners Sunn O))) actually starting up as a tribute to Earth!

Today, most of the drone I listen to follows the Earth formula: slow, impossibly long tracks usually featuring heavy, heavy guitar and bass and the odd smattering of barely-interested drums or keyboards. It's music for shaking your head to VERY slowly, preferably when stoned. Some flesh things out a bit. Philadelphia-based quintet Bardo Pond have two guitarists and a full-time drummer, but above all add the airy pipes and blissful flute of Isobel Sollenberger to their sound, best witnessed on 1995's 29-minute stomper "Amen" off their immense first album. Drone metal has therefore become the new true psychedelia (seriously, fuck The Dandy Warhols! They're nothing but vacant poseurs when placed next to the extreme stoners of Bardo Pond or the more psych-metal Acid Mothers Temple), as also evidenced by Japanese heavyweights Boris, quite possibly the best metal band still going today.

If you're a volume-freak (as I am), Japan remains the best place to go. Seriously, I went to a live gig by noise artist Pain Jerk, and I'm sure he rearranged my organs using volume alone! Mainliner, High Rise, Aube, Acid Mothers Temple, Melt Banana... the list of infinitely loud Japanese bands, be they metal, psych, drone or noise, is impressive. And Boris may just top them all. Regardless of whether they're doing "sturm und drang" speed metal, psychedelic post-metal (see their masterpiece Flood, one of the best albums of all time) or going for all out drone-a-thons, they're always killer, never more so than on At Last - Feedbacker, their droniest album ever. Like the best music of Earth, Nadja or Sunn O))), it's as heavy as fuck, a big, crunching mix of pounding drums, fuzzed-out guitar and warped vocals, but it never picks up any speed, the trio preferring to plod along, getting louder and louder until all you can feel are those guitars, those limitless guitars. I played it for a colleague who's very into Yoga and New Age stuff, and she loved it, such was its slow, all-encompassing, primordial power. She compared it to an intense yoga session. And see how we draw full-circle to the reference points in traditional Asian culture that first inspired Takehisa Kosugi and the Taj Mahal Travellers? Even when cranked up to full volume and chock full of electric instruments, drone retains its ancestral power, its foundations having been first laid down milennia ago.

Nadja live

Which is not to say that the Cluster/Tangerine Dream electronic futurist side of drone has now become obsolete. Far from it. In 1995, seminal shoegaze band Slowdive released their best album, Pygmalion, to universal indifference. Today, it stands as quite possibly the best album of the 90s. Tired of the shoegaze noise-guitar formula (very drony unto itself, it should be noted, check out "Sometimes" on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless for proof), the Slowdive gang immersed themselves in electronic music: trance, techno and ambient, then mixed in their guitar-centric approach and stoned out vocals to deliver an album that, for all its funereal pace, use of tape loops and slow electronic ambience, still today comes across as one of the most modern and forward-reaching albums ever. Dare I say it, it sounds post-modernist, futurist. It's the ghostly music of a heroin come-down, or the slow recovery in the early morning hours after a royal bender. It's hazy, druggy, mechanical, the soundtrack to a hungover train ride through a deserted city at 7am. The word is timeless.

But where Slowdive, betraying their more traditional rock background, stuck to vocals and guitars, others rushed headlong into the world of electronics. Austrian artist Fennesz's (left) Black Sea, from 2008, may contain his trademark saturated guitar drones, but its basis remains a carpet of buzzing electronica, computer-generated glitches and subtle ambience. Like the likes of Stars of the Lid and Eluvium (I strongly recommend the latter's Talk Amongst the Trees), Fennesz drone has as much in common with Music For Airports-era Eno and 90s trance music as it does with ghostly, ancient-sounding rock drone a la Nadja, Boris or Sunn O))). Kudos also to the massive dark sounds of Dutch musician Machinefabriek, Merzbow and Pinhas' urban guerilla electro-drone on Keio Line, and the spulchral ambience-and-tam tams droning of A Secret Life, a weird collaboration between former synth-poppers John Foxx and Steve Jansen, along with producer Steve D'Agostino.

The sheer number of bands and artists I've mentioned these last few paragraphs, who all started out in the 90s and 00s, shows one thing: that drone is perhaps more prevalent in rock music than ever before - despite the lack of support for drone bands from mainstream rock labels and press. In fact, if you look at this wee list I created on http://www.rateyourmusic.com/: http://rateyourmusic.com/list/Phimister/the_best_of_drone, 19 of the 43 albums were made after 2000! Obviously, said list only reflects my personal tastes, but it says a lot that such a large proportion of quality drone albums should have been made only in the last 9 years.

Part of it is ease. Drone does not require any sort of musical virtuosity to be made. Two chords on a heavily-saturated guitar at full volume can suffice to make an hour-long track that can, despite this simplicity, be challenging and unpredictable. So drone is cheap and easy to make. It's also a perfect form of musical rebellion these days. With so much popular music being of the bland Britney/Snoop/Libertines/Klaxons variety, bands are turning to extreme forms such as drone, noise or minimalism. Some are gently easing it into more mainstream rock and pop (Battles, Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor...), others are remaining resolutely absolutist, and are pleasingly getting bigger and bigger audiences, people tired of the afore-mentioned mainstream and flocking to their new sounds (it's all relative of course, no-one's gonna book the O2 Arena for Nadja, but the Pain Jerk gig I went to was packed, albeit in a small venue - and that was pure noise music!).

Most famous of these newer bands is surely Sunn O))) (right), a duo of robe-wearing guitar freaks who've taken the Earth template, pushed up the volume and the darkness, and delivered a terrifying mix of deep, deep drone and pure black metal. Vocals are few, but generally provided by creepy monster singers like Attila Csihar and Xasthur who howl and scream like the living dead. It's not always successful -I struggle to enjoy Black One- but on 2004's White2, I was enraptured. Three long, doom-laden tracks, the first an Earth-like guitar dirge, the second a weird droning experiment in deep, deep bass ambience and the last a weird experimental track that has to be heard to really be appreciated. All are long, all are dark and scary, but the sheer talent of the Sunn O))) guys and their various collaborators (over the years, they've worked with Oren Ambarchi, Dylan Carlson, Jesse Sykes, Boris and Julian Cope, among others) takes the music beyond puerile scare metal and makes it some of the most challenging and forward-thinking drone around.
And, I can't stress it enough, this music is dark. More than Schulze or the Taj Mahal Travellers, many modern drone artists are interested in exploring the relationship between their music and things like esoteric studies, ancient religions, shamanism and long-dead civilizations. The music channels notions of tarot, witchcraft, lost Gods and mythology, whilst, through the ability to create drone through a wide variety of means and instruments, always sounding fresh and modern. So the possibilities are boundless, and drone acts can increasingly be found at alternative and counter-cultural festivals, and not just experimental or metal ones. At the year's Equinox festival in London, I had the pelasure of viewing drone artist K11 and noise wizard Burial Hex, alongside such weird folk heathens as Kinit Her and Comus.

And the list is lengthy. As well as those robed legends of Sunn O))), and the increasingly primeval style Earth has been espousing (especially on 2005's Hex, or Printing in the Infernal Method, a windswept album of rhythmic drone metal that taps into America's deep dark well of far west occultism), we've had the likes of Robedoor (a sort of Sunn O)))-sounding metal/drone outfit), Pocahaunted (shamanic female duo mixing lethargic drumming, fuzzy guitars and ghostly chanting), massive doom-metal husband and wife duo Nadja (check out their titanic albums Skin Turns to Glass and Radiance of Shadows, the latter's sound being brilliantly evoked by the cover picture of gigantic snow-capped trees), Double Leopards (another dark and creepy duo whose Native American vibe evokes a sense of creepy marshes and dank forests, again demonstrating a link with dark-folk and occultism) or gloomy black metal-tinged slow rockers like Monno, TenHornedBeast and To Blacken The Pages (I recommend their A Semblance of Something Apertaining to Destruction most highly - it's a stirring slice of death music unequalled in darkness, emotion and beauty). All are dark, all love their drone, and explore its possibilities in very different ways (loud and heavy for Nadja, slow and gloomy for To Blacken the Pages, ghostly and folk-tinged for Double Leopards). And all have a deep understanding of drone's ability to evoke troubled internal emotions and a sense of long-lost esoteric culture.

A very recent act encapsulates the singular mix of modernity, ancestral power and raw power that makes up drone music: Urthona. Urthona is an enigmatic guitarist named Neil Mortimer based out in the wilds of England's Dartmoor, where he conjures up forceful drone on just a heavily treated electric guitar. The volume is insane, and at times has me thinking of some of the loudest and most brutal metal, noise or industrial music, all screaming machinery and modern detachment. But then he kicks in the deep end of his guitar buzz, going from scream to rumble, and suddenly your eyes are drawn to his album covers (he has two so far -in 6 months- "I Refute it Thus", released on Julian Cope's HeadHeritage label and this year's Amind Devonia's Alps). On them, our man poses in the distance, axe (that's guitar for the non-musical) in hand, surrounded by immense rock formations, be they man-made (on "I Refute it Thus") or natural (Amid Devonia's Alps). Machine, mankind, history and nature - all brought together by the drone. Surely that is the secret of this weird genre's enduring attraction and timeless allure.

Phew! What a slab! And I only barely touched on noise music! If that wasn't all too dull, here's a list of ten essential drone albums I think everyone should listen to if they have even a menial interest in the genre. I am sure you won't regret it. But what do I know?

1 - Cluster - Cluster 71 (1971)
2 - Tony Conrad and Faust - Outside the Dream Syndicate (1972)
3 - Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht (1972)
4 - LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela - Dream House 78:17 (1974)
5 - Takehisa Kosugi - Catch-Wave (1975)
6 - Earth - Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version (1993)
7 - Boris - Boris At Last - Feedbacker (2003)
8 - Sunn O))) - White2 (2004)
9 - Robedoor and Pocahaunted - Hunted Gathering (2007)
10 - To Blacken the Pages - A Semblance of Something Appertaining to Destruction (2008)

And some random noise albums for those of a less sensitive disposition:

1- Kaoru Abe / Yamazaki Hiroki Duo - Jazz Bed (1972)
2 - Lou Reed - Metal Machine Music (1975)
3 - Les Rallizes Denudes - Live 77 (recorded 77, released 1991)
4 - Nurse With Wound - Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella (1979)
5 - Fushitsusha - Hisou (Pathetique) (1994)
6 - Mainliner - Mellow Out (1995)
7 - Wolf Eyes - Human Animal (2006)
8 - Burial Hex - Initiations (2008)
9 - Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing (2008)
10 - Sonic Youth featuring Mats Gustafson and Merzbow - Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (2008)

Enjoy!!!! Come on people feel the noise!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And the drone, of course.