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January 4, 2002

++ Winter Drones

I'm a sucker for a drone. Some of the greatest rock 'n' roll owes its spirit to the drone: just think of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray," or the monochrome arrow that pierces every one of My Bloody Valentine's songs. But recently it's electronic music, with its attention to texture and tone color, that has made the most of drone music's pure sonority. That was the project of early ambient, of course, and in the mid-'90s, "isolationist" artists risked frostbite to seek out ever more forbidding corners of sound.

Today, dark ambient music is more advanced than ever, thanks in part to increasingly sophisticated-yet-affordable technologies, but also to the commitment of artists across a broad spectrum seeking to mold sound like a solid object (let's not forget that "stereo" comes from the Greek word for "solid"). In the winter months, I tend to seek out the darkest, heaviest blocks of sound I can find, and I leave the best discs playing in the CD changer as I drift off to sleep. I'm not looking to be soothed — it's about sound as a blanket, a weight so heavy you can feel it pressing upon you, so black it makes mirages in the unfathomable distance. These four recent discs all take the measure of sound's specific gravity and come up with radically different results.

++Thomas Köner, Daikan (Mille Plateaux) Thomas Köner has never been about warm fuzzies. As half of Porter Ricks, he drove dub techno into ever-colder climes, and his solo work takes ambient isolationism to the darkest, iciest reaches of sound. His first release for Mille Plateaux since 1998's brilliant Kaamos, Daikan was recorded live in Montreal, where it won the Performance prize at FCMM 2000. The recording presents a single, hour-long composition, almost entirely shorn of melodic movement. Instead, a fuzzed drone circles high overhead, changing in color as it catches the frozen light. Occasionally, a new tone appears on the horizon and the astral symphony's balance shifts ever so slightly, as though the weight of the world itself had changed. At times the hum recedes to the faintest whisper, and you're left craning your neck, trying to catch the fading trace of the incursion.

++ Kontakt der Jünglinge (Thomas Köner + Asmus Tietchens), 0 (Die Stadt) In this follow-up to the duo's 1999 recording, 1, Köner and Tietchens present a live performance from October 2001. Over the course of 40 minutes, waves of static lap at the speakers and a buried energy wends its way through the murk. At times the circling airplane of Köner's Daikan seems to make an appearance; other times, what sound like field recordings of water and wind sketch out an empty sonic wilderness. Twenty-five minutes in, blunt bass stabs chop at the air, suggesting the collision of nature and technology. In the end, though, this is a piece less to be theorized or analogized than simply experienced with closed eyes and wide-open ears: an experience of pure being-in-sound.

++ Francisco López + Joe Colley, Knowing When Not to Know (Antifrost) Spain's Francisco López is best known for his early work exploring the limits of perception and the grey area between audibility and silence. Of late, though, he's climbed the wall of sound to gain a better vantage point over a sprawling landscape of full-spectrum noise, both on his solo CDs (such as the sublime Untitled #104 for Alien8) and in collaboration with Zbigniew Karkowski, John Duncan, Amy Denio and others. On this 3" CD, Sacramento's Joe Colley contributes to an 18-minute piece that crawls out of silence to ascend to a buzzing, dizzying peak before it quickly fades back into nothingness. At its high point, a squall of white noise is rent by arrows of feedback and threaded with ribbons of glistening tone, until the air around you feels as though it bristled with light. Five minutes before it ends, silence imposes a curfew, but a rebel faction breaks loose, brandishing rattling percussion and snatches of radio fuzz in a soft cacophony of bebop, lounge music and Hawaiian guitar, and the anonymous revelers carouse their way through the darkness — until they're shot dead with the abrupt end of the CD.

++ A.F.R.I Studios, Goodbye If You Call That Gone (Lucky Kitchen) This makes the third and final release from Andrés Franz Krause under the A.F.R.I. Studios alias. While he's not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, Krause's work is slowly coming into a wider audience, many of whom have recently been enraptured by the organic electronics of the Softl Music label, which Krause runs alongside Tom Records' Tom Steinle.

At times it doesn't seem as if anything is even happening on this album, but damned if it isn't one of the most powerful ambient recordings of 2001, the audio equivalent of light scraping across the mottled surface of water. The first track, nine minutes long, simply revolves in empty space, a single low tone paired with a single high tone in such a way that the harmonics kaleidoscope into a dizzying array of frequencies. The second track fleshes out that pattern, adding a dissonant hint of melody and vague percussive scrapings in the distance — but even so, over the course of its seven minutes, there's barely any movement. On the final track, a resonant mass is wrapped in long sheets of throb and hum, where dissonant wrinkles snap open into bleach-white octaves: 13 minutes of illuminated bliss.


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