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Drone On: Sonic Shamans And The Philosophy Of O)))

Written by: Apothecary
Published: 06.12.2014

Most of us have heard of it, even if it may be restricted to a relatively small audience. Iconic images of guys shrouded in ominous black cloaks, producing mammoth walls of feedback from their 100+ amps onstage, have cemented the aesthetic of the style. But what is drone exactly, and what is the purpose of its musical vision? What keeps its small but loyal fan base so intrigued and eerily entranced by it? Cliffhangers are annoying, so let's get down to business and shed some light on this musical twilight zone.

I hope this article will be the first in a series of them examining certain styles in the metal genre from a critical perspective: thematic content and artistic vision, delivery, essentially digging deep down into their medulla oblongatas and seeing what makes them tick. So grab your scalpels and come along with Dr. Apothecary (jeez, that was redundant, wasn't it?) for the ride.

What is drone seeking to accomplish? Every genre of music will inevitably come with its stereotypes, and in this case drone has frequently been portrayed as a simplistic, boring genre in which dull, monotonous noises that an 8 year old could make are repeated over and over again on a guitar tuned down to drop Z. While not an entirely unjustified perception, this one is, as with all generalizations, extremely flawed, and fails to take a more introspective look at the creative ideology that the genre forms itself around. And what might that be?


Oh yeah, he be tranceing

You read it right. Drone is, to put things most simply, a form of trance music. A quick Google search of "drone music definition" will conjure the following result, that it is "a minimalist musical style that emphasizes the use of sustained or repeated sounds, notes, or tone clusters, called drones." "Minimalist" and "repeated sounds" are probably the two key phrases here, both of which are fundamental towards giving drone its distinct personality. One thing that I commonly hear from friends who aren't into drone that I attempt to turn onto it is that "this music makes me feel like I want to sleep." While such a comment has a lighthearted, humorous undertone, it actually holds a lot more weight than one may at first assume.

What is the relationship between drone (and slower music in general) and states of trance and hypnosis? Is there truly one that can be identified? Or is it just coincidence? Due to much evidence that supports such a claim, that second question more than likely has an answer of "yes," and there has been much investigation in the scientific community on this topic. Slower, more repetitive forms of music are generally thought to help in the listener's process of relaxation, possibly because (as some researchers have suggested) the considerable lack of melody and upbeat tempo doesn't overstimulate the mind, and thus makes it easier for it to quiet itself and be lulled into a more semiconscious state. In many cases, such slower, rhythmic music has even been used for therapeutic benefits, such as improving cognitive function and treating ADD.

In the before mentioned article, Emily Saarman notes that "Musicians and mystics have long recognized the power of rhythmic music. Ritual drumming and rhythmic prayer are found in cultures throughout the world and are used in religious ceremonies to induce trance states." In this regard then, we can view drone as following along the same stylistic heritage as raga, Tuvan throat singing, and the like: that is, a ritualistic form of music focused on channeling and stimulating the science behind the mind/body connection through its relaxing, repetitive nature. Drone always struck me as highly shamanic, and plunging the listener into an almost altered state of consciousness. In the same way that an indigenous, tribal healer may have his ceremonies accompanied by a steady, pulsating rhythm to help plunge him "into the zone," drone builds upon the same sort of principles.


The ideas at the core of drone music stretch back for literally thousands of years, but the genre as we know it today can be traced back to the late 1950s, with Avantgarde musician La Monte Young. Fascinated with extended tones and Indian and Japanese classical music, Young put out his Trio For Strings album in 1958, self described as "the first work in the history of music that is completely composed of long sustained tones and silences," and sounding strangely similar to something we'd hear today out of The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. The Velvet Underground's 1966 Loop EP should also be considered as a prototype for the style in its modern form as well, for although far off base from the rock the band is more commonly known for, it contained many experimental and extended sound techniques. When we talk about drone within the context of metal, however, this style didn't really begin to emerge until the early 90s. Three albums from three different bands planted the seeds for what the genre is today, and I'd thus like to think of them as a sort of "holy trinity" of the genre.

Earth is to drone as Kanye West is to rap... no, wait, that was a bad analogy

First and foremost, there was Earth's Earth 2 debut in '93, quite likely the starting point for the emergence of drone within the metal genre. Featuring three massive tracks (one of which Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley has actually named a project after), the album was, as its title suggest, a deep, low journey through monotonous riffs and entrancing soundscapes. Curiously enough though, this would really be the only Earth album to sit in this "pure drone" style, and the subsequent ones would either blend it with something else, or abandon it altogether in favor of a more bluesy form of psychedelic rock (yes, that means I don't agree with you loonies who say the band is still drone today).

Three years later, and nearly 4,000 miles away, a little Japanese band by the name of Boris dropped a debut of their own, Absolutego. This one was pretty much the drone equivalent of Dopesmoker (as if that one wasn't drony enough already), a single, hour long track dedicated to feedback and amplifier orgies. By this point, it was clear that the drone sound was beginning to evolve, as with this carefully constructed behemoth Boris began to flirt around more with tempo manipulation, an increase in the presence of drums, and even threw some vocals into the mix. Much like Earth, Boris have undergone multiple evolutions throughout their discography, and can't really be called drone anymore today, but the mark they've left on the genre is nonetheless unquestionable.

Finally, the one drone band we're probably all most familiar with emerged from the shadows a few years later, Sunn O))), a duo of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who had played together previously in Burning Witch, a sludge/doom band that also flirted around with drone elements. Sunn O))) however took things to the next level with The Grimrobe Demos in '99. Far more haunting than their contemporaries in Earth and Boris, O'Malley and Anderson began to experiment with more of an ensnaring, dark ambient atmosphere, that has subsequently become the band's signature. While not a purely dark genre, many of drone's bands that you see today pushing the more ominous, crushing agenda can trace their style directly to Sunn O))). They are the only three of these drone metal pioneers that can still be called as such today, and, always open to experimentation, the band has also done several collaboration albums, with the likes of Boris, Ulver, and more.


Drone metal in its present form has seen a considerable degree of diversification beyond the confines of its original pioneers, and is far more stylistically complex than the "just strum a single note over and over again" perception of the common layperson. At times it can be crushing and utterly unrelenting, following in the vein of Sunn O))), as with bands such as Moss, Monarch, and the now-disbanded Khanate. At other times, it can be incredibly melodic and atmospheric, still retaining its monotonous, trancelike nature, but taking a more serene, caressing approach, as one can see with the likes of Jesu and Nadja. Sometimes drone pays tribute to the ancestral, Eastern-derived forms of trance music that its roots stretch back to, as in the case of Bong or Ginnungagap (a side project of Stephen O'Malley). And the fusion of drone into other genres is another category all in itself. Usually this blend is only restricted to doom and black metal, but nonetheless, when pulled off right, the combination can often result in some pretty bleak, oppressive beasts. I'd recommend the Menace Ruine debut, as well as some of the earlier Gnaw Their Tongues material for those interested in drone fusions, but be warned: it's definitely not for the faint of heart.

"What? You wrote an article about drone when you could've been talking about the true metal of Manowar? OUTRAGE!"

Is drone metal? This is a question that's inevitably going to come up, and while I don't want to go off on a college dissertation's worth of genre debates, I'll offer up my two cents. Though formless, and often lacking the energy and machismo that metal is typically associated with, I would have to say yes. When considering the stylistic origins of the genre, especially in regards to Black Sabbath, one of the primary techniques at work was the creation of a slow, heavy, and rhythmic sound, often relying heavily upon the use of distortion, loudness, and manipulation of guitar feedback. Drone as it is today follows along the thought of this legacy, and thus I would like to believe that although it's not what we would typically envision metal to be, we should not shut out these hooded amp worshipers from our beloved genre.

Something that a fellow user noted in conversation with me not too long ago was that drone metal is starting to somewhat die out, and that it's really only the older, big name bands who can still garner attention and warm reception with their releases. While I can see why this claim is made (often it is these bands making the powerhouse releases of the style), I do believe that there is a younger generation of dronesters out there eager to put their own twist on the monotonous goodness. More often than not, their releases aren't as up to par with the classic ones, but I'd like to think that expecting another Sunn O))), or another Earth is a little ludicrous, and essentially sets you up for disappointment. One should instead try to take modern drone in the context of how it's evolved, and, if one truly wants to, seek out some of the better current releases of the style on their own (Bandcamp is your friend).


At the end of the day, drone is not for everyone, and will probably always have a very limited audience because, although not "extreme" in the way we typically think of "extreme metal," it still sits at a relatively extreme end of the metal spectrum due to its generally uncompromising nature. As I pointed out, however, drone is actually far more diverse than is typically thought, and I thus truly do believe that fans of all types of metal would probably be able to find at least one drone album they enjoy (go ahead, I dare you). If the three pioneering drone albums I suggested aren't really clicking with you, fret not. These are more so "pure drone" than anything else, and due to the style's evolution in the past decade, there are many more releases out there that lie outside of the somewhat rigid confines of these three. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the past year or so, I've come to find that drone is a delightfully varied style of music, that helps me relax, meditate upon certain things, and experience the beauty of music on a more primal, spiritual level. I hope that it can do the same for some of you

Ten Drone Essentials

1. Earth - Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version
2. Boris - Absolutego
3. Sunn O))) - The Grimrobe Demos
4. Sunn O))) & Boris - Altar
5. Jesu - Jesu (also some shoegaze)
6. Nadja - Thaumogenesis
7. The Angelic Process - Coma Waering
8. Bong - Mana-Yood-Sushai
9. Hjarnidaudi - Pain:Noise:March
10. Menace Ruine - The Die Is Cast (also some neofolk)

Plus five of my personal favorites

1. Bloody Panda - Summon
2. Horseback - The Invisible Mountain
3. Dark Buddha Rising - Abyssolute Transfinite
4. Khanate - Things Viral
5. Undersmile - Narwhal

Hope ya guys find some goodies both there and elsewhere. Inhale the riff, worship the O))), and drone on.

Written on 06.12.2014 by Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable since 2013.

Comments page 3 / 3

Comments: 62   Visited by: 114 users
06.09.2018 - 18:35
Drone Strike
Written by RaduP on 06.09.2018 at 18:24

Ok flip it around

Metal's influence on hip hop

That I think could be a very interesting idea that I'd actually love to do in the future
Check out Apothecary's Favorite Bands Playlist, brotendo. One track per band.
06.09.2018 - 18:53
Written by Apothecary on 06.09.2018 at 18:35

Written by RaduP on 06.09.2018 at 18:24

Ok flip it around

Metal's influence on hip hop

That I think could be a very interesting idea that I'd actually love to do in the future

Either that or nu metal

Your choice, really
Do you think if the heart keeps on shrinking
One day there will be no heart at all?

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