In a recent, and excellent, article in The Quietus, Brad Sanders analysed the subtle move, artistically and atmospherically, of Black Metal away from the snow-dampened forests and dark rural landscapes that characterised it in the early nineties, and into a sound more redolent of cramped and claustrophobic urban spaces. It’s a compelling analysis, and it shows that even genres as monolithic as the more extreme forms of metal can evolve and cover new ground.
But if this evolution has crept into metal in the last decade, I’d argue - not as a contradiction of Brad's piece, but rather as an extension of the consideration of the varying of atmospheres in modern music between the rural and the urban - that it has been happening in drone music for even longer and with, to my mind, more exciting and varied results.
Not that it's a fair comparison, of course, given the gradual development of drone, from ancient tribal music (Tibet, Scotland) to the seemingly most-loved of all the underground genres. But, throughout its evolution through the 60s experimental scene to the halcyon days of kosmische German music, it retained, bar the occasional left-field experimentation of guys like Tony Conrad and John Cale, either a decidedly pastoral vibe, or something more 'tantric', designed to elevate the listener to new fields of consciousness; even in the hands of masters such as LaMonte Young, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Cluster and Popol Vuh. There was a sense that drone music could connect modern listeners either to their less cluttered past, or to something even greater and more spiritual.
But the darkly urban strains of Conrad and Cale never went away, especially as the latter took his approach to The Velvet Underground, therefore striking a still-unending chord in the psyche of music-lovers across the globe. And this less airy use of drone would resonate most powerfully in the industrial punk of the late seventies and early eighties, through the clanking, clanging sounds of Throbbing Gristle, Maurizio Bianchi and SPK, and never truly went away. Drone, like rock, changed in that period, and suddenly the cosmos, lost rural civilisations and Eastern rites were no longer the main focus of drone artists. Instead, the encroaching, pervasive, claustrophobic atmosphere of mankind's effortlessly dominant cityscapes had taken in root in the minds of many drone musicians and composers, never to leave again.