A Closer Listen’s Best Drone Albums of the Decade

Drone can be as soft and comforting as a refrigerator hum, or as loud and abrasive as a jackhammer.  The full range is represented here, from hum to noise, sine wave to distortion.  Some call drone the sibling of ambience, but that’s a misunderstanding; the genre often seeks to unsettle, which is why many of our Halloween picks are found in this category.  As the decade progressed, many drone artists increased their attention to societal issues, reflecting a time in which volume is used as a weapon, and albums as torture.  Drone artists also used music as an expression of anger, a cathartic explosion of sound, finding beauty in corrosion and eternity in decay.

And now, in alphabetical order by artist, A Closer Listen presents The Best Drone Albums of 2010-19!

Acre ~ Sacrifice (Digitalis, 2010)
An earlier album, Acre’s Isolationist (2009), opened my ears to the power of drone. Both albums share the same metallic strata of rich droning, which Sacrifice partially cuts through with rhythmic oscillation. Across three long-form pieces and two short interludes, the album alternates between clean continuity and pulsing indecision. The notes state “No Synths, No Looping, No Laptop, No Guitar”; what equipment Aaron Davis did use on this recording, I’m still not sure. Answers on a postcard, please. In a majority of instrumental and electronic music, beauty comes from textural warmth or hypnotic patterning. On drone releases, stone-cold darkness can be equally satisfying. But Acre’s music crafts none of these things. It offers an enormous, neutral space that completely envelops on every listen.  (Samuel Rogers)

The Inward Circles ~ Nimrod Is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre (Corbel Stone Press, 2014)
OK, OK, you got us – we are quite partial to the work of Richard Skelton at A Closer Listen and if we can vote his albums onto our charts we’re going to do it. Admittedly, we don’t review everything he releases, but Skelton is a prolific artist and there’s a lot of music out there. But there’s something about the first Inward Circles album that we keep coming back to, partly because it’s an atypical Richard Skelton album, with the signature string instruments taking a back seat to long, glacial tones that push slowly but insistently forward. In work recorded under his name, much is made of Skelton’s ties to location – the psychogeography of place, if you will – but Nimrod Is Lost seems to stretch back into the aeons of geological time. Subsequent Inward Circles have dealt explicitly with what has been buried by man, but this, somehow, has its roots even deeper down; to quote C.S. Lewis “into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned”. (Jeremy Bye)


Lost Trail ~ Music from ‘Traumatic Attachments’ (Illuminated Paths, 2012)
Lost Trail had a remarkable decade. The husband-and-wife duo cemented their status within the ambient, drone, and experimental fields with their snapshots of suburbia. Lo-fi drones and pastoral guitars lead the way through a desolate neighbourhood where things have slowly been declining for years. Industrial sounds populate the album. Recordings of telephone calls and tragic conversations are also here, tainting everything in the blue of sadness and longing while the music slowly slips on. The notes float through as beautifully-indistinct orbs, like headlights on a highway.  (James Catchpole)


Paul Jebanasam ~ Continuum (Subtext, 2016)
Some beloved records revisited can underwhelm, revealing distorted memories or evolved tastes. Continuum, Paul Jabansam’s study of the heavens, remains very much among the celestial bodies it examines ~ a set not always massive in volume but certainly massive in weight. It’s a thrilling journey whose three parts offer something individual yet flow together like oceans. We start with a surge through our atmosphere, the vessel powerful yet vulnerable against the weight of the cosmos. Lines of communication crackle, encasements fracture and electrics falter. As we escape gravity’s clutches, senses reorient to survey infinity. Soothing melodies emerge, yet cannot manifest clearly. We seem to drift for aeons until the fabric of reality itself ripples then falters, fissures appearing then gone. We seem to drift with Aeons ~ supreme beings of overwhelming presence who could lay to rest any doubts of divinity. But in the end, it concludes not with the comfort of knowing, but with the poetic beauty of what can never be known. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)


Petrels ~ Haeligewielle (Tartaruga, 2011; reissued by Denovali 2012)
This album is about stories as well as sound: a diver working to strengthen the foundations of a city, a king who cannot hold back the tide.  In “Canute,” the music follows suit, bursting through the barrier and rising to unforeseen levels of volume.  A great variety of timbre is on display, including songs that serve as elegies to figures long lost.  Oliver Barrett may have left Bleeding Heart Narrative behind, but the narrative and heart are still apparent.  This holy well is filled with life-giving water.  (Richard Allen)


Pharmarkon ~ Contact (Sacred Bones, 2017)
“Empathy! EMPATHY, NOW!” scream Contact’s liner notes, a statement that violently reverberates throughout the revolutions of our times. The “pharmakon” from which “pharmaceutic” derives meant in classical times both medicine and poison; this exploration of the psyche in communion with the body mirrors the painful, disjointed aggression without which there is no freedom, its connections meaning life as much as they mean death. Breaking away from the alienation deep at the center of the contemporary mind’s labyrinth, re-establishing a communal sense of self, entails the abolition of their past conditions, a cascade of drones and noise that makes the tired tropes of the genre incredibly exciting once again. Because the noise of the past is now the nihilism of the present, Pharmakon here growls and pierces through the trappings of its inertia. Noise lives again, and gleefully, painfully, hopefully, gut-wrenchingly, it states: there is no natural order! (David Murrieta Flores)


Sean McCann ~ The Capital (Aguirre Records, 2011)
Here’s one for the future hidden histories of the 21st century: The Capital is a key album for a movement we have yet to articulate as such. McCann moved away from these sorts of cascading drones and into the collage realm of electro-classical composition that, while indebted to the earlier’s avant-garde juxtapositions, has developed altogether differently. This album is thus a shooting star amidst the already impressive night-sky outline of the decade in drone, its lush wonder but a brief illumination of a timeline we can only perceive at a distance of accumulating years. It still beckons, however, for its masterful layering of the familiar and unfamiliar, strings and electronics clashing into radical new shapes that psychedelically flourish into place. With an infinite bed of impossible flowers on each side, this abandoned path promises entire worlds to be made, somewhere, sometime, by someone else. (David Murrieta Flores)


sevendeaths ~ Concreté Misery (LuckyMe, 2014)
sevendeaths’ Steven Shade provided us with a document to sift through and archive our conflicting, embattled selves on Concrete Misery, a record enmeshed in the occasional profundity of the artificial. He hypothesized an alternate present where droning MIDI notes better the melancholic howl of plugging a Fender into its amp, and tinny arpeggios flutter higher than a 20 person symphony tuning up. The result is a disengagement of meaning, a suggestion that simulacra can both reimagine and enhance the stability of the concrète. There is an unsettling undercurrent to the black metal gloss of “All Night Graves,” but it only shakes us deeper into the awe of pure, decontextualized experience. We find ourselves brought to tears in front of photographs of ancient objects, the original meaning of which may even be lost, but sevendeaths lets us revel and cry and get spiritually lost in that space of uncertain authenticity.  (Josh Hughes)


Tim Hecker ~ Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky, 2011)
In the early 2010s, experimental artists like Ben Frost and Tim Hecker found themselves pushed to the forefront of an ambient resurgence— a growing genre of mutilated, disintegrating sounds battling out their original, “natural” timbre. Ravedeath, 1972 was the arguable apotheosis of this golden age of drone, with its relentless chill and reconfigured, battle-bruised organ screams. Recorded by Frost in the Fríkirkjan church in Reykjavík, Iceland, the album deftly combines the incorruptible tones of live piano and pipe organ with the unwavering wrath of processed texture and digital and tape manipulation. “The Piano Drop” prologues the record with the terrifying, corroded noise of a machine trying to cheat its own obsolescence, but as time goes on, Hecker loosens the machine’s grip to let us hear the beauty and occasional quiet of erosion. Like the iconic album art that situates it, Ravedeath, 1972 is bursting with a violent tension that we are never granted access to but to which we are given profound implications.  (Josh Hughes)


Yellow Swans ~ Going Places (Type, 2010)
Arriving in early 2010, Going Places was the final Yellow Swans album, for which they dropped their policy of sticking a ‘D’ word at the front (Deep Yellow Swans, Demonic Yellow Swans, Duh Yellow Swans, etc). Recorded a couple of years previously, it has a tangible sense of finality about it, even as the mangled electronics grumble and thrash away. It’s a drone record, sure, but it’s a noisy one, refusing to go gently into that good night. Gabriel Mindel Saloman and Pete Swanson had spent the previous six or so years reconfiguring, evolving and refining their sound, releasing an epic sequence of mostly limited cassettes and CD-Rs, often split with another artist. It is a discography that has remained in its original formats, with a small percentage available via Bandcamp or the iTunes store. Perhaps aware that this was their final statement, the duo stripped away some of the harsher elements and crafted a work that offers a breath-taking psychedelic experience. Going Places enjoyed a wider circulation thanks to Type Records and it remains as relevant now as it did at the start of the decade – it sounds like standing in a protective bubble whilst all creation collapses around you. (Jeremy Bye)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Best of Decade Lists: Part II – Avant Music News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: