DRONE METAL MYSTICISM: THE POWER OF HEAVY SOUND ON BODIES AND LANGUAGE
Despite writing a PhD thesis and a book about it, I’m not totally convinced that ‘drone metal’ exists. Some people use other genre terms for the music I’m talking about, drone doom, just drone, or power ambient sometimes. It’s connected to avant-garde minimalism as well as black metal, particularly on SunnO)))’s 2009 classic Monoliths & Dimensions. Some of the bands, like Earth and Boris in particular, made wildly extreme landmark albums in this slow, ritualistically extended style of endurance metal, but then moved to other forms of rock. Unlike death or black metal there’s never been the intense crucible of a local scene to develop conventions, values and a name for the style – bands often exist on the margins of doom, noise or black metal.
There is something importantly metal about it, though, not least the worship for Black Sabbath, and a honing of the sheer power of riffs, like metal distilled. The term ‘drone’ is important too, as fans I interviewed talked about the feeling of drone and ‘being droned’. That subjective response becomes a core part of how listeners group music together, and a sort-of subgenre forms around home listening that’s described as ritual and meditation, and physically immersive shows that prompt language of spiritual or mystical experience. So even if certain musical features are clearly important (long duration, slow development, monotonous repetition, heavy distortion), drone metal is at least partly constructed by commonalities in listener’s affective experience and their (often entertainingly strange) descriptions of engaging with the music. This might not be so unusual- in black metal, listeners frequently talk about ‘true’ black metal as somehow secretly distinguishable from fake black metal made by posers, though of course every fan’s definitions differ slightly!
But drone metal prompts such purposefully unusual bodily and mental responses that this not-quite-genre doesn’t just provide opportunities for musical experimentation, but also offers an intense but open-ended space for considering religion-related themes. I describe this as ‘listening-as-if’, where the heavy expanses of distortion allow imaginative space for exploring ideas, or perhaps more importantly, feelings of mysticism and ritual, without any need for commitment to dogma or institutionalised belief. Language does return, though, in outlandish descriptions of hearing, feeling, enduring drone metal, and in playful, bizarre expressions. Listeners described imagining being transported elsewhere to other times or different planets, or turning into a tree, or getting their skull ‘droned away’ entirely. Ambiguity persists, and exaggeration and absurdity combine to hint at the power of experiences rooted in material responses to and engagements with thick, heavy sound on and in the listening body.
Songs to keep in your ear
Information about Owen’s book, Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal (2018), is available here.