It’s time for the annual list of my favorite drone records. There are a few differences this time around. First, I didn’t care too much about the “too big to be on this list” thing as I’ve done in the past. I still excluded names like Basinski and Skelton as well as big names not usually in the drone field who put out excellent drone records like Yo La Tengo and Six Organs Of Admittance. The other thing is I was a bit stricter with my definition of drone, which has been pretty loose in the past. So no Midwife, no Andrew Weathers Ensemble, no Claire Rousay, etc.
This year there were a ton of artists who released way more music than usual. It was tough, but I kept it to just one release per artist. I frequently mention other records the artist put out though, just so you know there’s more good tunes to go around.
Last year, I excluded Longform Editions releases from the list because I intended to make a list just for Longform releases but I never got around to it. This year I knew my limitations and didn’t bother keeping that exclusion. There’s only two Longform releases on this list but they could have easily taken up half of the list on their own. Seriously.
Also, Editions Mego and sub-labels had a fuckin stellar year. Again, I didn’t want to overwhelm the list with EMego releases, but you definitely need to hear more from their 2020 catalog.
Let me know in the comments what I missed and what some of your favorites of the year were.
As always: Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening. Thanks for making incredible music.
25. Emily A. Sprague – Hill, Flower, Fog (self released, Plancha, RVNG Intl.)
An absolutely delightful modular synth dream, super chill New Agey journeys that “channel the here and now and fosters a far-reaching connectedness, or lifeline, from the everyday to the cosmos.” I don’t usually enjoy modular synth records too much, but this one is a bit more dynamic than most with the bloops and the drones and it just makes me feel good.
24. Elsa Hewitt – Ghostcats (self released)
Definitely one of the more unique records on this list. Short poppy songs that kinda sound like Julianna Barwick’s version of vaporwave. Ethereal dreams with tons of vocal harmonies, glitchy blurred synth rhythms, and enough sunshine to last all winter.
23. Penelope Trappes – Gnostic State (Longform Editions)
I knew nothing of Trappes prior to her release on Longform (which is one of the best things about Longform, their batches are usually half obscure names, half well known) but she put out a remix record last year with versions by Mogwai, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Félicia Atkinson, so I assume I’m in the minority with my ignorance. Regardless, Gnostic State is some spectacular drone, super fuckin minimal, barely there tonal drifts being whisked away with nothing but a breath, machine hum in the background with almost nothing in the foreground save for an occasional exhalation of energy.
22. Uttered In Tongues – Volume In Ritual (self released)
Now this is a fucking debut. A. Arthur Tuttle’s Uttered In Tongues project started up this year with Volume In Ritual in support of his live Heavy Meditation Group, so yup this is some heavy fucking drone that’s super textured, a bubbling bog of long-form static buzz, two 30-minute songs slowly destroying the external world until only you and the black sound exist as a single entity, the songs end as they begin, a monolithic slab of deep immutable rumble, waiting patiently, perpetually, for the mind meld.
21. Moralix – Environmental Research Facility (Fireflower Foundation)
Moralix is one of the names Jocelyn Shazzaiya records under (another more prolific one is Seffi Starshine), and she also runs Fireflower Foundation. I don’t remember how this one caught my attention but I’m glad it did. It’s one 78-minute piece “recorded outside the Environmental Research Center at Jægersborg Hegn” on April 6th, 2020, then released on April 7th. This is relevant because I have no fucking clue what these sounds are made of and knowing it was essentially a field recording processed in less than a day just adds to the mystery, it walks the line of harsh noise wall which means this is loud as hell, enormous, and super fuckin dense, like listening to a rocket engine combusting while in a silo, and that’s only part metaphor, this actually sounds like the constant roar of fire exploding out of a small opening for over an hour, so yeah, this is pretty fucking cool.
20. Vanessa Skantze – Writhing Treasure Feast (self released)
Ok so this one is a bit complicated. Skantze is a multi-disciplinary artist who focuses on Butoh dancing. Writhing Treasure Feast was a dance performance with lots of music created by Masaaki Masao (from Eye Of Nix), Erymanthe (duo with Joy Von Spain from Eye Of Nix) collaborating with Masaaki Masao, Pink Void, Greg Campbell & Sioux City Pete, Morher, and Noisepoetnobody collaborating once with Uneasy Chairs and once with Cailleach. That performance turned into a physical release with two CDs of music and an art book with photography by Anima Nocturna, paintings by Ambrosia Bardos, and writing by Skantze. So, in summary, Skantze designed the whole thing: she produced it, directed it, choreographed & performed the dance, and commissioned the music, photography, and paintings. Credit where credit’s due and all. Now that that’s out of the way… holy shit this music is incredible. It’s kind of hard to talk about it cohesively because it’s kind of a compilation (which I traditionally don’t include on these lists). There are seven songs, all but one of which are 15+ minutes, and they range from penetrating dark ambient rumbling to chaotic free form percussion, from unsettling layered vocal meditations to concrete industrial. It’s not an easy listen, that’s for damn sure, but there’s so much incredible stuff going on here that when you sit down for the nearly two hours this asks of you, you’ll see what makes it so fucking special.
19. Mizmor & Andrew Black – Dialetheia (Gilead Media)
Mizmor (aka ALN) and Gilead Media might be unfamiliar names to drone folks who aren’t clued into the metal arena but suffice it to say that both have released some of my all time favorite records, so you know you’re dealing with top tier shit. Mizmor’s journey has been a tumultuous one and thus far it’s been steeped in “wholly doomed black metal.” Andrew Black is a new name to me, but apparently he’s been effortlessly churning out sick ambient jams for the past couple years. He and ALN go way back but this is the first time in over a decade they’ve worked together and Dialetheia is their first earnest collaboration. It’s two side-long pieces of truly hard to peg drone, with moments of muddy sludge alongside moments of brilliant sunshine, silk smooth synth prefacing crusted sandpaper guitar, ethereal smoke fading right before your eyes and monstrous thick gloom that soars with screaming feedback in the background. This is premium shit and you don’t need to give a single fuck about metal to enjoy it.
18. KMRU – Opaquer (Dagoretti)
I’m pretty confident there’s no one else besides KMRU (Joseph Kamaru) who knows exactly how many records he released this year. My best guess is seven but I’m probably missing some. He really hit it big this year with releases on Editions Mego and Seil, a Resident Advisor DJ mix, and generally just tons of exposure, all of which is highly deserved. This dude is crazy good. He works primarily with field recordings and electronics and Opaquer is where it’s at for me. It’s one of his longer releases this year and one that found a home on Dagoretti (as opposed to his numerous self-released jams), a slow burner if there ever was one, real deep churning vibes that includes everything from tin can rattling to people crying, but shimmering over the surface is a very poignant vision of beauty, showing up wherever you decide to cast your gaze, truly magical work, this dude has all the chops to go down in this history books alongside names like Eno and Oliveros.
17. Sally Decker & Brendan Glasson – An Opening (Full Spectrum)
Both of these names are new to me, and it looks like they don’t have much recorded work under their belt, but that clearly has no relation to their talents because this is a true joy to listen to. The A side is one piece that developed over several in-person collaborations, and it’s a crazy mixed bag of electronics and who knows what else that fuses squelchy feedback with slow melodies growing and shrinking with each other, then it goes for the jugular about three quarters of the way through. The B side was created after the pandemic outbreak, so they collaborated remotely, resulting in six shorter tracks that have a much wider and more dynamic range of controlled chaos and tempered tones. The whole thing is fucking fascinating and the “deeper listens reveal more details” trope is absolutely true with An Opening.
16. Laura Luna Castillo – Tuberose (Whited Sepulchre)
I heard both Castillo’s 2018 release on Genot Centre and her EP on Longform Editions last year but for whatever reason, neither stuck with me. I only say that in case you might pass over Tuberose thinking “eh, I’ve already given her a chance with those other two.” Don’t do that. Tuberose is pretty fucking special. I mean, just the intention behind its creation is awesome. Castillo became fascinated with the time-travelling essence of fragrances and transformed that into music. “Each track is made as if constructing a perfume or a smell, with their titles referencing ingredients and processes used in the extraction and entrapment of essences, sometimes paradoxically violent and beautiful.” But even beyond the theme, Tuberose excels in originality with intriguing loops and subtle melodies & rhythms and delicate tones and hidden treasures, it’s just too goddamn good.
15. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – Phosphenes (self released)
RAAL, who no longer needs to be associated with his long-shed moniker Lichens (but there you have it, just in case), was a fuckin beast this year with something like 9 or 10 releases. Yeah a lot of them were “archival” or whatever but for the Lowe heads, it doesn’t matter. It just means we had a lot of digging to do. Phosphenes is one of those archival releases, recorded on April 18, 2015 and released almost 5 years to the day, tagged on Bandcamp, like all his releases, both as “devotional” and “not devotional” which is perfect because that’s exactly how I feel about his sounds. Phosphenes is one 40-minute long piece that follows one of his common structures of starting out slow, low, & quiet with transcendent falsettos soaring over minimal synth drone, then a subtle rhythm is conjured and we’re treated to a hypnotic introspection, bringing you places you never knew existed. I’m not really sure why Phosphenes stands out above the rest for me, but it does, and it should at least help you decide on an entry point for Lowe’s 2020 discography.
14. Sunken Cathedral – Steam Turned To Ash (Full Spectrum)
When a new Sunken Cathedral (aka Ryan Jobes) showed up in my inbox, I was fuckin psyched. The last thing he did in 2016 ended up on my year end list and his 2013 debut rocked my fuckin world. Both of those records had a heavy dose of organ along with other cool people playing other cool shit (harmoniums, trombones, cellos, etc). So I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty bummed when I saw Steam Turned To Ash was “just” some synth drone. Turns out it doesn’t matter what this dude uses to make music because clearly he just fuckin owns it, trombone quartet or not. He pumped out two side-long pieces of dark minimalism, a haunted church atmosphere that lays low in its ebbs and flows for 75% of the time until it wallops you with some majestic volume and you can’t help but fall to your knees and worship.
13. Phurpa – Hymns Of Gyer (Ideologic Organ)
You can pretty much guarantee if there’s a new Phurpa record, it’ll be on this list. This is one of two Phurpa releases this year (the other being Ritual Chod on Zazen Sounds) but this one has the Russian mystics focusing on their voices even more than usual. Yeah they always make crazy inhuman bass rumbles with their vocal chords but Hymns Of Gyer is only that (well, that and two singing bowls but to be perfectly honest they’re hardly present). Their brand of tantric overtone singing is haunting, hypnotic, and deeply transcendent and without their bone rattles and chime rituals routinely pinging you back to consciousness, Hymns Of Gyer lets you fall deeper into their holy abyss than ever before.
12. Wind Tide – Plays Wind Tide (Llano Discs)
Llano Discs is the A+ new sub-label of Full Spectrum where they make hyper-limited CD-Rs with hand-crafted packaging featuring music made on the Llano Estacado in Texas. This debut collaboration is the duo of two folks who run Full Spectrum, Gretchen Korsmo & Andrew Weathers, and they smashed it out the fuckin park with this one, a single 75 minute piece of mega ur-drone, dual e-bowed guitars reverberating through every room of Wind Tide (the building, hence the album title), feeding back into an impenetrable sheet of buzz & thrum, trepanning your skull to conjure a third eye, and that’s just the first 20 minutes. The remainder of the record ebbs and flows about every 20 minutes and with each successive cycle, you float further into subconscious dreams. I also would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my favorite Weathers projects, the Andrew Weathers Ensemble, closed up shop this year with two final releases (a full length on Full Spectrum and a two-songer on Timesuck). Not quite droney enough to make it onto the list but still fantastic work you should seek out.
11. France Jobin – Death Is Perfection, Everything Else Is Relative (Editions Mego)
Jobin is one of those who self released quite a bit this year (presumably due to the pandemic) but this EMego LP was the highlight for me, where she meditates on the similarities between shadow photons and the “unknown universe which is death,” so clearly this is in my wheelhouse, Jobin’s brand of barely-there minimalism pairs beautifully with ruminating on death’s effects and the two side-long pieces here are perfect (not to mention the third digital-only track where she collaborates with Klara Lewis), full of breathless intangible whisps that shimmer and dance like sunlight on wavetops.
10. Alison Cotton – Only Darkness Now (Bloxham Tapes / Cardinal Fuzz / Feeding Tube)
Starting a record off with a 20-minute track of elegiac string drone when you still have four more songs filling the second half of the record is a subtly bold move and I wholly appreciate it. While I would have been immediately swooned by the second 2-minute track with Cotton’s deluxe vocals or the third track that’s harmonium heaven, jumping straight for the long-form minimalism is a surefire way to win me over. Then to close everything out, there’s a lengthy hymn that just cries all over you.
9. René Aquarius – Universe (self released)
When Aquarius’ name pops up, it’s usually associated with another name, either the genre-fuckers Dead Neanderthals with Otto Kokke, the death metal duo Cryptae with Kees Peerdeman, the black metal duo Celestial Bodies with Vincent Koreman, or any of the various spontaneous collaborations (like this year’s awesome reimagining of The Exorcist score with Celer). That is to say, a solo Aquarius record, while not necessarily rare, is definitely something to pay attention to. The title of this one gives you an idea of what’s coming up, this is fucking huge, two pieces roughly 40 minutes each, smooth minimalism on the universal time scale, stretching out beyond infinity and taking an eternity to get there, it’s just outside the realm of human understanding, a bit too far to grasp its truth but close enough that you can feel its boundless depth.
8. Jasmine Guffond – Current Harmonics (Longform Editions)
A couple years back, Guffond blew my mind with Degradation Loops and now she’s got two this year, one on Editions Mego, which is awesome, but this one here on Longform Editions is where it’s fuckin at. Not even 16 minutes long and it’ll turn your soul inside out, humungous numbing THX-intro wall of buzz, the kind of drone that gives you auditory hallucinations long after you’re done listening to it, you can play this at a most moderate volume and still feel like the Maxell guy. I fuckin love it.
7. John Kolodij – First Fire • At Dawn (Astral Editions)
You might not recognize the name John Kolodij if you’re new here but hopefully you’re familiar with his long-standing moniker High Aura’d, in which case you might know that whenever a High Aura’d record comes out, it’s always ended up on my drone list (see: every year since 2011, except 2013 when the only release was a 7” and 2016 when he didn’t release anything). I’m not biased (ok maybe I’m a little biased, he named a song in honor of my bunny after he died), it’s just that he’s that fucking awesome and his jam is most definitely also my jam. This here is the first release where he’s shed the alias (read into that however you want) and yeah, it’s fucking phenomenal, the A side brings me back to some old school Polmo Polpo Big Drone (a stretch of a comparison I know but feelings don’t always make sense) and then on the B side he busts out the slow burning banjo, and I’ve got a major soft spot for banjos, so hearing that dusty twang seamlessly melt into a traditional 6-string guitar is like actual magic, and then the field recordings bring me right to that clear lakeside sunrise with the delightful surprise of Anna RG’s violin and Sarah Hennies’ understated percussion, it doesn’t get much better than this. Also, check out his split with Ezra Feinberg on Whited Sepulchre, highly recommended.
6. Clarice Jensen – The Experience Of Repetition As Death (130701)
Jensen had a cool one called Drone Studies on Geographic North last year (which was the first I’d heard from her) but holy hell this new one is a fucking stunner. It’s just Jensen, her cello, and some loop pedals, but she does the unimaginable with them, creating not just the expected cello elegies but also deeply moving epics, floating above the clouds where there’s nothing but sun & sky as well as diving into cyclical low-end whirring that belongs to the dark ambient world. It’s painfully obvious this was written “towards the end of her mother’s fight with leukemia and shortly after she passed away” because this is brimming with bittersweet love fraught with mourning. The 11-minute piece “Holy Mother” by itself embodies the fear, anxiety, ardor, and rapture found throughout the whole record. Truly amazing work.
5. Golem Mecanique – Nona, Decima Et Morta (Ideologic Organ)
I’m kind of surprised/ashamed that Golem Mecanique (aka Karen Jebane) has flown under my radar for so long and it took this record on Ideologic Organ to catch my attention. She’s been active for 10+ years with releases on Drone Sweet Drone, Nowaki, and others, none of which I’ve heard. But Nona here is fucking phenomenal and guarantees I’ll be following her work from here on out. Two side-long pieces of mind melting minimalism with ghostly moaning, this is asphyxiating drone, like being stuck 6 feet under the snow after an avalanche, the heat of your body failing miserably against the smothering cold, horrific hallucinations fading in and out while you slowly lose consciousness. It doesn’t climb to any heights, no climaxes or epiphanies, just the slow but relentless approach of Death.
4. Anna Von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly (Southern Lord / Ash International)
Von Hausswolff has been churning out insanely awesome dark records full of organ gloom for about a decade. Her last couple have been full-band style with drums and guitars and shit so while I’ve loved them, I couldn’t include them on a drone list. All Thoughts Fly has her going back to the organ, though, and that’s the only thing you’ll hear. Yes, I have a soft spot for organs & reeds, but this is stellar regardless. It’s easily the most dynamic solo organ record I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard quite a few) which I assume has a lot to do with the particular organ she used (more on the recording process here). There are a ton of sounds on here that I’m truly surprised are sourced from an organ. So yeah it’s technically astounding but it’s also full of bittersweet tenderness, expansive melancholy, and spellbinding triumph. Fucking incredible music.
3. Klara Lewis – Ingrid (Editions Mego)
This might be the best 20 minutes of 2020. Lewis’ solo mourning cello starts off innocently enough, a smooth low drone that hits all the right spots, but it slowly ratchets up to a looped cacophony of distortion like Basinski on a blackened doom binge. It’s absolute fucking bliss and it feels like it lasts forever. For some strange reason, I feel like I shouldn’t say too much more about this though. Not like there’s anything to spoil but it very much speaks for itself and for real it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time.
2. Sarah Davachi – Cantus, Descant (Late Music)
It wasn’t too hard to pick a favorite out of the five Davachi records this year. No it’s not the longest (that would be Figures In Open Air, also on her label Late Music, clocking in at over two goddamn hours) and every piece is pretty short, all less than 10 minutes long. But it does feature a lot of organs and sometimes that’s all it takes. And I don’t just mean she plays the organ on every track, I mean she played at least six different organs, including a pipe organ built in 1479. Unlike one of the other organ-heavy records on this list (#4, #1), Davachi’s is a bit of a lighter affair and isn’t just a solo organ the whole time. This is soft music, played with tenderness and earnestness, and in each of the 17 short songs, there is a new sound, a new feeling, a new window looking onto another wondrous open cloud-dappled field, inviting you to climb through and explore with her. And this is (might be?) the first time in Davachi’s discography that her voice appears in a discernible way, about halfway through the record, and while you might think I’ve just spoiled that surprise, I assure you that you’ll be so engrossed with Cantus, Descant that by the time her vocals show up, it will be the most unexpectedly glorious sound you’ve ever heard, and now that I think of it you should probably be sitting down when you reach that moment for when you get weak in the knees.
1. Caroline McKenzie – For The Days To Come (self released)
McKenzie (aka Beth Gripps) seems to be a prolific self-releaser but this year was the first time I’d come across her. Three name-your-price releases on Bandcamp plus an LP’s worth of material on a 4-way split by Liquid Library (which I haven’t heard). Of the three Bandcamp records, this one earned the top spot. A Thousand Butterflies is a short Yellow Swansian melodic guitar noise EP, Citizen Of Nowhere is a 36-minute piece of very low key almost Stars Of The Lid style ambient, and For The Days To Come here is, that’s right, some motherfuckin organ drone. Ok it’s probably just a synth that sounds like an organ but I couldn’t care less because this is goddamn glorious. One 38-minute track of meditative melancholy, overwhelmingly emotional droning chords that are supposedly “designed for quiet listening, for relaxation” but I just want to crank it to 11 and drown in my sorrows. Music honestly doesn’t get much better than this for me. It’s minimal, but not too minimal like someone left a rock on their keyboard and hit record, and it’s deep, but not too deep like I need to read their autobiography just to know what’s going on. It’s, without hyperbole, absolutely fucking perfect.
I made a Spotify playlist out of your list (well what you could find there) for my own convenience. I know Spotify is not a good thing for artists, but I thought that maybe other people could find it handy and then buy the albums (like I do), so here it is:
Thanks as always Justin! Jason Calhoun is always a favorite of mine and had an amazing year with several new releases and collaborations – https://napsounds.bandcamp.com/