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Whether as a meditative comfort or a spell of unease, the use of drone in various forms is a common thread across music from all parts of the world. Harry Sword’s book, Monolithic Undertow, does a fantastic job of exploring how drone has been used throughout history, as well as its lasting impact and influence on modern music. While going through the chapters of his book you quickly realize how broad the spectrum of drone is, and for a newbie, digging into drone music may seem overwhelming. Where to begin with such a sprawling genre? More specifically, where to begin if you like heavier or darker music?
Good news: Discipline Mag is here to provide you with a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Drone’ – a ten album list tailored to those with a taste for extreme music. While the style of these albums varies, the throughline between them is the same: sustained tones, repetition, dark and best listened to loud. These albums are intentionally ordered, starting with guitar-based drone and getting progressively more electronic and experimental as you go. I recommend starting at the top and working your way through.
1: Sunn O))) – Pyroclasts
For most folks, Sunn O))) is what immediately comes to mind when drone is brought up in the context of heavy music, which is why they are a great place to start. Pyroclasts in particular is a great entry point to the band’s 20+ year discography because it showcases the fundamental hallmarks of drone music: sustained, improvised, and meditative.
Recorded live during the making of Life Metal, Pyroclasts is an improv collection of wonderfully cohesive pieces that hold your attention through subtle dynamic variations, the skulking creep of feedback, and the exchange between consonance and dissonance. Generally around 11 minutes a track, these pieces aren’t so long that someone new to long-form music would find them meandering or feel like the album is an endurance test.
Pyroclasts was included on Discipline Mag’s 2019 End of Year Review.
2: Earth – Earth 2: Special Low End Edition
Largely credited as the forefathers of drone metal, Earth’s debut record is another great starting point that sets the benchmark for heaviness in drone. Released in 1993, many of the other albums on this list can draw a direct line back to this record. Inspired by minimalism, Dylan Carlson managed to bring a level of heaviness forward while maintaining the meditative quality central to drone music. Heavy to the point of forcing the air out of your lungs, the sheer weight of this album is crushing, but what I’ve always found particularly interesting every time I listen is that once your body acclimates to the weight of the album, you’ll find more to unpack underneath the surface. Like your eyes adjusting to sudden darkness, this album’s shapes slowly reveal themselves – and each time I find my ear latching onto something new. A true lifelong listen.
3: Khanate – Khanate
Somewhat of a supergroup made up of Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, James Plotkin and Alan Dubin of OLD, and Tim Wyskida of Blind Idiot God – Khanate lands on the doomier side of drone. Imbued with the heaviness of Earth, Khanate’s splitting feedback and tortured vocals impart a feeling like you’re being overtaken by a wildfire; violent, destructive, all-consuming.
With the most traditional setup of any band on this list (a four-piece of bass, guitar, drums, and vocals), Khanate won’t feel so far out of left field for people curious about drone, and serves as an excellent primer for anyone still developing the ears for longform instrumental music.
4: Plague Organ – Orphan
Continuing with guitar-based drone, we have Plague Organ’s 2020 release for Sentient Ruin, Orphan. Most would call this an experimental blackened death metal record, but what makes this a drone release to me is it draws a direct line to its meditative origin. Orphan is a record you can truly get consumed by – an unbroken 40 minutes of relentless pulsing of drums underpins the waves of cavernous baritone howls of unknown source, demonic vocals, and an ever-increasing high harmonic presence. As you listen you feel yourself being pulled deeper into the hell Plague Organ have created.
Those of you with a taste for minimalism or deep listening will enjoy this release. The consistency of the guitar and drums providing the rhythmic stage for the other sonic characters to come and go makes for a listening experience where every slight variation or new detail is immediately felt. To their credit, Plague Organ executes this in such a way where your immersion is never broken and no move made on their part feels unnecessary. This feels like a living piece of music. It breathes, blood pumps through it, it moves, and whatever this living thing is, you get the sense that it is of massive scale (…and evil).
5: Dead Neanderthals – Ghosts
Dead Neanderthals’ Ghosts is in a similar vein to Orphan. In fact, Plague Organ’s members were involved in this release: Rene Aquarius on drums and Marlon Wolterink handling the recording and mastering. Released in 2019 and spanning two roughly 20-minute tracks, you’ll find Ghosts has the hypnotic, relentless rhythmic pulse and consistent building of the sonic environment like Orphan, but this album isn’t as blatantly metal. However, I do find it just as dark. The track “Bone Hill” opens with an unending saxophone drone that bends and glissandos between two notes. As the track grows, this drone increasingly becomes more dense and ethereal until there is a chorus – which to my ear isn’t so much beautiful as it is horrifying. This track is mesmerizing, but not in a blissful way. Rather, it is paralyzing in its horrific majesty.
Second track “Death Bell” is far more melodic by comparison. Guitar led, it checks the box for repetition, and feels to me almost post rock – which gives this track a melancholy flavor. It’s much more subdued, until about the 13-minute mark when you are assaulted by a hale of howling saxophone and sustained guitar drone. As this assault continues things take a sort of Godspeed You! Black Emperor flavor, giving you the sense the walls are coming down around you. All together, Ghosts is a spirited and dynamic expression of the core tenants of drone music and is incredibly emotive throughout.
6: My Heart, an Inverted Flame – Plague Notes, Unnamed, Unknown, A Finger Dragged Through Dust
A collaboration between Marc Kate (Never Knows) and Andee Connors (A Minor Forest, Common Eider King Eider), My Heart, an Inverted Flame’s debut record truly brings something unique to the table. Self-categorized as synth-doom (which is apt), this group – and specifically this record – is unafraid to dwell, holding you in stasis via incredibly heavy drone and percussion that’s unceasing in the monolithic dread it builds. Even this record’s more subdued moments offer more anxiety than bliss. This is an excellent soundtrack for our times; the sound of a structure moments away from collapse, and when it finally gives way you find yourself buried underneath the rubble.
The album’s opening is a masterful embodiment of these feelings. A ghostly introduction builds a sense of dread before a wall of synth drone crushes you. The intensity is augmented by the kinetic force of Connors’ drumming while Kate’s synths continue to absolutely overwhelm and envelop you; this is a heavy record and a powerful listen.
7: Ben Frost – A U R O R A
Arguably drone influenced rather than blatantly drone music, I include this record here for a number of reasons. First, it’s the record that served as the catalyst for getting me into harder and heavier electronic, ambient, and other drone-adjacent works. Second, this record does represent some core tenants of drone music and presents them in an interesting way.
“Flex” and “Nolan”, the album’s first two tracks, do have a meditative quality to them – the consistent heartbeat rhythm shared by both songs centers while a maelstrom of searing noise assaults you to the point that you think either your speakers or your ears are going to break. The entire record has an energy that metal fans will find familiar and a heaviness of tones that are unique and unrelenting at their peak. A U R O R A is also more dynamic than some other records on this list, which forces you to lean in during its softer moments and hold on for dear life when the album is at full tilt.
It is an incredibly active record – where melody and sonic flourishes take place on top of consistent rhythm and sustained fuzzy tones, most noticeable on tracks like “Venter”. A gateway drug into areas of harsher experimental electronic music.
Also check out Discipline Mag’s review of Unsound Adelaide 2018 for a glimpse of Ben Frost’s set.
8: Eric Holm – Andøya
Eric Holm’s approach to creating music has been centered around ‘non-standard’ modes of composition. On the Arctic Norwegian island of Andoya, he used contact mics to record “pylons carrying communication cables that connected listening stations” to create this album. The result is a dense semi-industrial throbbing din. Not focusing on sustained tones, the core of this record is the hypnosis of repetitive pulse. Additionally, what makes this album unique among the others discussed here is there is a feeling of what I can best describe as ‘closeness’. Even at high volume, this album doesn’t sound as outwardly massive, but rather like something internal. Every time I listen to this record I can’t put aside the thought that this might be close to what the inside of the womb sounds like…
9: Klara Lewis – Live in Montreal
“A state of permanent collapse is a thread throughout” – a description of Live in Montreal taken from the Editions Mego Bandcamp page. I find this description wholly appropriate; from the moment this record begins you get a sense that things are on the brink.
A live recording from 2018, Klara Lewis blends choral loops, lumbering rhythms, and field recordings to create an experience that feels like the world is coming down around you – all with such a powerful dramatic sense you’re immediately gripped.
The set’s second movement veers close to noise territory and is the most blatantly heavy bit of the album. A murk of swirling electronics anchored by tones reminiscent of a meditative chant, the repetition here and rising swell of noise while a higher harmonic hangs above it all imparts a sense of anxiety and panic as if you’re out on the open ocean in a storm. As it hits its peak, vocal samples begin the transition into a far calmer ending movement of the set. More melancholy in its subdued dramatics, you get a sense of rest after an emotionally taxing experience, but the lingering damage is still present.
10: Deathprod – Treetop Drive
Treetop Drive is one of the most haunting compositions you will hear on record. The album opens with a single somber bowed chord, which repeats throughout the track’s runtime as various horrific noises rise and make themselves known. Via longform and repeating themes you feel as if this track is a descent into madness, your grip slipping as the familiarity of the bowed chord returns, but each time somewhat less familiar and accompanied by some new darkness. The rest of the album carries on in a similar way.
Treetop Drive pulls you into such an ominous and meditative state your peripheral vision begins to darken. You lose time listening to this album – you get lost in the immersive world it builds around you.
A masterful work through and through, which is why it closes out our list.
Into the Void
I hope this guide provides the threads you need to help navigate the rich and diverse world of drone music. This is an important musical expression that has a primal power to it, so enjoy the ride – and may it connect you to something deeper within yourself and the universe.
For further reading check out Discipline Mag’s recent Local Live & Underground List which covers a new record from drone metalers, Nadja.
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