In praise of drones

by Dave Maier

10ambient.450Drones seem to be in the news lately, with much negative commentary. Now, I can understand those brought up on classical and pop music wanting harmonic movement in their music, but it's not like drones are a crime against humanity. In any case (Emily Litella to the white courtesy phone) I haven't done any new podcasts in a while, so let's head out to the drone zone for another look.

Earlier posts in this series: here, here, here, and see also here (scroll down).

Our first set is another time capsule, mostly from the glorious 1970s.

1. Heldon – Virgin Swedish Blues (Heldon III)

Heldon is guitarist and synthesist Richard Pinhas with occasional help from others, the Continental counterpart to Robert Fripp's King Crimson. This track, from 1975 or so (check the hairstyles on the cover if there is any doubt of this), is an overt hommage to Fripp & Eno, but that distinctive guitar tells us who it really is. Some early Heldon is a bit raw for effective spatial journeying, but this one is right out there. Some of you may know Pinhas from that bizarre Lingua Franca article in which we hear how Pinhas so freaked out Philip K. Dick that the latter was moved to alert the FBI. True story!


2. Tonto's Expanding Headband – Riversong (Zero Time)

Not that Tonto (which interestingly enough means “stupid” in Italian), but TONTO: The Original New Timbral Orchestra, a titanic bank of electronics assembled by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. They – and it – are best known for their work with Stevie Wonder on a string of classic 1970s albums (e.g. Talking Book and Innervisions), but they put out some music of their own as well. I'm not convinced by some of the compositions, but this track is a stunner. Incidentally, Tonto has a new home.


3. Bill Nelson – Sleep (Sounding the Ritual Echo: Atmospheres for Dreaming)

Bill Nelson first rose to prominence with his glam-rock band Bebop Deluxe, but after they broke up in the mid-70s, he continued to crank out solo records by the dozens, of amazingly consistent quality, including the synth-pop classics The Love that Whirls and Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam. This record is a collection of instrumental odds and ends which, as he tells us in the liner notes, were “recorded in the privacy of my own home on broken or faulty tape machines and speakers, each track possessing its own technological deformity.” Not sure what the deformity is on this one, but it sounds fine to me.

4. Tangerine Dream – Berlin 1973 Pt. 2

Tangerine Dream's music underwent a striking change in 1973, as the disc they recorded that year (Phaedra) is the first to feature what went on to be a major component of their sound – the analog sequencer. This concert, I understand, was the last they played before recording Phaedra, and while there are no sequencers present as far as I can tell, it does seem like the music is a bit more rhythmic than that of their previous period (e.g. Zeit), sounding a bit like (1973-era) Kraftwerk in spots. At one point the music suddenly stops, as if someone had tripped over a power cord or something. It continues in a few seconds as the cord is reattached, but by then we've moved on to our next track.

Tangerine Dream1
5. Jon Hassell – Passage D. E. (Power Spot)

Jon Hassell is a favorite of mine, so I couldn't resist putting him in here, even though this record (shock, horror) is not yet 30 years old. This record features Richard Horowitz and Michael Brook, both of whom went on to make not-entirely-dissimilar records of their own (Brook's effort, Hybrid, even ticking Hassell off a bit w/r/t that non-dissimilarity, if what I hear is true). Brian Eno is here too, mostly behind the desk with Daniel Lanois, but also (not on this track though) playing electric bass, of all things.

6. Henry Wolff/Nancy Hennings – Skybells I (Tibetan Bells II)

The first Tibetan Bells release was a hippie classic (deep bells, man), but the second one is a bit better recorded, so this is the one I tend to go to. No time to bliss out this time though, so we just hear a snippet.

7. Alvin Curran – Gli Scariolanti/On My Satin Harp (Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden)

Curran is an American, but at the time of this release he was working in Italy, which accounts for the use of an Italian folk song (vocals by Margherita Benetti) in our first bit, followed by an organ workout in the Terry Riley vein, if rather mellower.

Our next set is more contemporary, although in some spots you might be forgiven for not noticing this, or even believing it for that matter.

1. Steve Hauschildt – Sequitur (Sequitur)

StevehauschildtSteve Hauschildt is a member of Emeralds – actually was, as they've disbanded, which is a good thing, as the three ex-members' solo outings are a) just as good or better and b) at least equally numerous. This release is his most melodic yet, and even has vocals on a few tracks. Not on this one though, which is evidence for the proposition that Jean-Michel Jarre is alive and well and living in Steve Hauschildt's head, or studio anyway. Gorgeous.

2. Electric Orange – Krautschock (Morbus)

This is either vintage (Dutch) krautrock or a contemporary retro version – I don't remember which offhand – but it works either way: a loose, spacy jam with occasional incomprehensible vocal outbursts in the background. Love that organ. (Autocorrect suggests “spicy” for “spacy”. Maybe for Paul Gough, host of Australia's unmissable Quiet Space radio program – check out the last 8 shows on their Past Programs page, but do it soon, as his monumental best of 2013 series will be gone before you know it.)

3. Loscil – Hastings Special (Sketches From New Brighton)

I keep expecting Loscil (a.k.a. Scott Morgan) to fade away into repeating himself, but if so, it hasn't happened yet. This track is wonderfully drony yet melodic too.

4. Panabrite – Departing (The Baroque Atrium)

Panabrite (Norm Chambers) is a shamelessly retro analog synth geek, and each of his little vignettes (no Schulzian epics here) revels in that glorious analog sound. He's very prolific, and very good, but here I do think many of his releases are rather similar. See for yourself here:

5. Slow Dancing Society – Pieces of Your Presence (laterna magica)

Don't know much about this bunch (if “bunch” it is). This track made a nice transition, so that's why it's in there.

6. Sinepearl – Seeds (Through Water She Spoke)

Sinepearl is Swedish musician Björn Ekegren, and that name is one to watch. Not too retro, not too trendy, and definitely original. Check out the whole album here:

7. Yoshito Murakami – Quiet Summer, White Mountain (Mu To Eien)

Mu-to-eien-package-1-small-release-page-jpg004Here's another name to watch, if I can only remember it (no relation to Haruki, as far as I know). There's quite a bit of stuff like this coming out nowadays: definitely contemporary, definitely “ambient”, but also (Eno to the contrary) attention-grabbing, at least for me, compositionally speaking. There are a couple other standout tracks on this one as well.

8. Seaworthy – Sleep Paths II (Sleep Paths)

Seaworthy, an Aussie ensemble, has been around for a while now, but I haven't known quite what to make of them from the few bits I've heard. I remember them as generally more computer-y than this fine track.

This last set started out as a sleep mix, but I decided it was too good to sleep through, so there's a nice upbeat Berlin-school sequencer workout in the middle there to keep you going. (But if the Vikki Jackman puts you under for good, that's okay too.)

1. Boards of Canada – Transmisiones Ferox (Tomorrow's Harvest)

This is from the well-loved Scottish duo's most recent record, which like the others has plenty of wonderful little snippets which serve as transitions on the record but are often worth a listen for themselves as well. Here's one of those snippets to start us off.

2. Chihei Hatakeyama – Within New Trees (Long Journey)

Chihei-Hatakeyama-Interview-articleThis guy is the man. Everything he does has that magical drifty touch, and even if I can't tell them apart they're all great. I know he used to use mostly or all guitar as a sound source (see his early Minima Moralia on Kranky – and pity the guy tabbed to translate Adorno into Japanese), but I don't know if that's still true. Whatever, it's all glorious.

3. Pleq and Hakobune – Horizon Line (Adrift)

This one was an unexpected collaboration. Hakobune is another of the Japanese legion of ambienteers in the wake (as I see it) of the great Chihei Hatakeyama, using also mostly guitar (I think). Pleq is Bartosz Dziadosz, which is not a Japanese name at all, so what we have here is somewhat cross-cultural. In any case, this track is a warm bath with lots of wonderful things floating around in there with you.

4. Outerspace – Vanishing Act (Outer Space II)

Outerspace (I think I've also seen it with two words) is Steve Hauschildt's (and Mark McGuire's) erstwhile bandmate in Emeralds. Here it's not Jean-Michel Jarre but some Berliner (maybe Christoph Franke?) who has taken up residence in our man's skull. Good stuff.

5. Off Land – Intersection (Eventide Passage)

I first ran into Off Land on a netlabel or two, but now it seems they've graduated to the big leagues where people pay you to hear your music. Good for them!

6. Lawrence English – Hygrophorus russula (For Not For John Cage)

Lawrence English comes not from space-ambient territory but from more avant-garde roots, as the title of this release indicates. Much of his work is out on the essential British label Touch, which also features other avant-garde-drone-ambient crossover artists like Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi and BJ Nilsen. Not like your blissed-out brain will notice though. According to, hygrophorus russula is neither hallucinogenic nor poisonous, and is “not distinctive” in odor or taste. Huh.

7. Jasper TX – rounds (I'll Be Long Gone Before My Light Reaches You)

Jasper TX (named in a fit of despair over the infamous hate crime that took place there) is guitarist Dag Rosenkvist, and much of his (excellent) oeuvre is on the noisy side, but this brief track is barely there, making a nice transition to our ending piece.

8. Vikki Jackman – Magnolia (a paper doll's whisper of spring)

Vikki Jackman, who either is or is not related to David Jackman of Organum (sorry, I know it's one of those), has put out a couple of gloriously drifty, mostly acoustic material, well-described here by the album title, I must say. This is out on Andrew Chalk's label Faraway Press.

That's all for this time, but there are plenty of mixes at the Mixcloud page that I haven't posted here, so you can drone out for many hours if you want. Til next time!