First there’s the fog. A grey haze that’s been flooding the venue for 15 minutes. In the smudged green light, shapes in long, hooded robes move and take position in front of a semi-circle of stacked amplifiers that span the width of the stage. The crowd’s focus sharpens. There’s a momentary pause. Then comes the wall of sound. It hits you, physically. It’s 120 decibels of unbridled sub-bass. It makes your spine tremble and your ribcage rattle. Your eyes have difficulty focusing.
Drone music isn’t exactly new. From bagpipes to didgeridoos, Byzantine chants and the classical Carnatic music of the Indian subcontinent, the use of sustained and repeated tones was prevalent a long time before the post-Renaissance obsession with harmony and melody. More recently, it has existed in the realms of experimental music, with LaMonte Young at the forefront of exploring duration and tones from the 1960s onwards.
But in the early 1990s drone underwent something of a revolution – one whose subterranean reverberations are still being felt: this month, in the form of Ensemble Pearl, an album by some of the genre’s leading current exponents, and of a performance at Idaho’s Treefort Festival by cult band Earth. Indeed, it was Earth who pioneered the modern drone rock genre when, in 1992, they went into Avast Studios in Seattle to record their debut album. According to guitarist Dylan Carlson, the group’s founder and a close friend of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, their aim was to make music based on “repetition, volume and tempo” – specifically a lot of repetition, at full volume, at the slowest possible tempo. “It was very conceptual,” he says. “The idea was metal meets LaMonte Young.”
The result was Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, a full-length album comprising three tracks, the shortest of which clocks in at more than 15 minutes. These tracks consist of chords and notes played with high levels of distortion and feedback that (and there’s no other word for it) drone. It became known as one of the first and most influential drone metal albums – something that Carlson himself finds a little strange: “Drone is something that’s been part of music since forever. The idea that anyone invented it is a little weird to me.”
Nonetheless, with its emphasis on guitars and distortion, Earth had created something new. Two more albums followed in a similar vein. But then, in the late 1990s, Carlson was overcome by personal problems and drug abuse and disappeared from the scene.
His influence was not forgotten, though. In 1996, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, US guitarists and friends, decided to pay homage to Earth and to Melvins, another band that shaped the experimental scene in the 1990s. “We were really wearing our influences on our sleeves back then,” says Anderson. “We wanted to create a heavier version of Earth and Melvins, and take it a few steps more extreme, make it even heavier and grind it down even further.” So they hooked up as many Sunn Model T amplifiers as they could find and began.
As with Earth, the amplification was a crucial factor. So much so that Anderson and O’Malley named their project Sunn O))) after the amp – the O))) being the symbol of a sound wave.
The sound they produced can be heard on The Grimmrobe Demos and ØØVoid – and it does come with some caveats. First, it sounds like what it is: a group with guitars and amps turned up to full, slowly hitting the same chords repeatedly for 15 minutes. This isn’t music that cares for catchy hooks and choruses: it’s all about the tones and textures, so it helps to have speakers or headphones capable of handling sub-bass. Even then, it’s definitely not for everyone, as Anderson and O’Malley were aware at the time: “When we started we knew people were going to hate it,” says Anderson. “There were maybe a couple of people who were like, ‘Oh cool, I like Earth too’, but mostly they just thought it was bullshit. So we’ve just had this attitude right from the beginning of, ‘Well, no one’s going to understand this, but f**k it, we’re having a great time.’”
Not caring about the restraints of success or accessible music meant that their creativity flourished. Albums such as White1 (2003) and White2 (2004) saw the band experimenting more with dynamics and instruments and collaborating with a rostrum of artists, such as on “My Wall”, a 25-minute track that involves the British rock musician Julian Cope intoning a druid-like incantation over wailing, cosmic guitars.
With Black One (2005), they moved into the territory of black metal, not only in the sound, but also in creating an atmosphere and story around the album. There were rumours of claustrophobic vocalist Malefic being locked in a coffin to record vocals on the track “Báthory Erzsébet”; they played live shows in Norwegian cathedrals, and commissioned artists associated with black metal to design the artwork, all with the intention of creating something “more than just an album”, according to O’Malley.
“With Sunn O))), that can almost be more important than what it sounds like,” he says. “There’s this potential for all these other elements to have an influence because the music is so subjective and abstract. People come to it and while they’re trying to assimilate it into something they can relate to, the story can help them form an opinion in a certain way.”
In terms of their studio work, the concepts and sounds that Sunn O))) experimented with last came together in Monoliths & Dimensions (2009), a four-track album that begins with heavy volume and amplification, takes a turn via a Viennese women’s choir and the guttural voice of long-term vocal collaborator Attila Csihar, and ends with “Alice”, a haunting, hopeful 16-minute song that grows and swells from a clean-tone guitar riff into feedback, horns, strings and harps.
But there’s another side to Sunn O))) that exists apart from their studio albums and perhaps best demonstrates their mastery of the drone sound: the live show. When they started playing in the studio, they soon realised the sheer physicality of amplification at that volume and were keen to share the experience. There was, however, a realisation that “we had to do something different because it’s boring watching guys in long hair, standing there making feedback,” says O’Malley. So they went for hooded robes and filling the venue with so much fog that you can barely see the stage.
“It’s pretty Spinal Tap,” he says, “but most things involved with being in a band are. The serious point of it would be thinking about theatre and removing the individual from the equation. You don’t really know who the individuals are but the overall onstage character is the source of the sound.” And what a sound it is – a huge, rumbling wave that seems to make your cells vibrate for 90 minutes.
“It’s like staring into a bonfire at close range,” O’Malley adds. “But it’s never been about confrontation in terms of being aggressive and brutalising people … It’s changed from noise into this physical encounter. People are so focused into it.”
It’s the reason why drone can create soundscapes that invite introspection and produce meditative, trance-like states. Nor is it just about volume. In 2003, Dylan Carlson returned with a new Earth. The distortion and volume were no longer as prominent: what remained were the long, slow, contemplative tones and textures. Now the influence wasn’t metal, but country music, jazz, blues, all encompassed by Carlson’s minimalist guitar-playing and the slow precision drumming of Adrienne Davies.
Their latest album Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II (2012) is a set of improvised tracks inspired by English folk music that in some superficial ways couldn’t sound more different than Earth 2, but at its heart is still recognisable as the same musician following through a vision he began 20 years ago. “My songwriting hasn’t changed that much,” says Carlson. “Back then we brought in all these huge amps and turned them all the way up and miked them all to separate speakers … Now we know that small amps make bigger sounds in the studio and not to mic them all up. You work and learn I guess!”
Earth are planning on returning to the studio in the near future, this time with a more “catchy hard rock influence”, as Carlson puts it. Meanwhile, O’Malley, who has been composing music for European theatre choreographer Gisele Vienne, is working with Ensemble Pearl. As is typical of O’Malley, it’s a collaboration with the likes of Atsuo, from Japanese drone band Boris, Michio Kurihara, and William Herzog of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. Other similarly influenced bands can be found on Anderson’s Southern Lord record label, which he now spends most of his time running. So if the idea of experiments in volume, repetition and tempo appeal, and you have the speakers to handle it, turn it up, sit back, and enter the world of drone.
Ensemble Pearl’s ‘Ensemble Pearl’ is released on March 19 on Drag City www.dragcity.com
Earth perform at the Treefort Festival, Idaho, March 21-24 www.treefortmusicfest.com