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The drone band's drone band - 84%

Bertilak, November 29th, 2008

‘Drone’ isn’t always the most accurate genre description in the world of metal. Some of the biggest names in the drone metal universe, from SunnO))) to Black Boned Angel to Fall of the Grey Winged One, are not averse to an honest-to-goodness riff from time to time, and lately even Nadja have thrown caution to the wind and used a drum kit. There are still bands out there, however, for whom the word ‘drone’ remains not so much a vague category but a definite, emphatic instruction and Burial Chamber Trio ranks foremost amongst them.

Initially presented by Southern Lord as a “SunnO))) sub-bass trio side project”, Burial Chamber Trio has now produced two albums (or four tracks, depending on how you want to look at it) of, essentially, pure drone. There’s no doubt that many people, whether metal fans or not, would find the band’s resolutely ascetic approach hard going, a fact they themselves slyly allude to in their label biography, which notes that the music “may induce vomiting, narcolepsy or rigor mortis”.

‘WVRM’ (in capitals and with a ‘v’) was recorded live at a club called Worm (not in capitals and with an ‘o’) in Rotterdam but, despite that, is actually more mellow and restrained than the band’s self-titled studio album. The sleeve features the line “ONLY VINYL IS REAL”, which seems a simple comment on the fact it’s only available on 10” vinyl, but it may actually be intended as the title of the song, as the extract from ‘WVRM’ that appears on the ‘Within the Church of Thee Overlords II’ sampler CD from Southern Lord does have that as its title.

Officially, Oren Ambarchi provides guitar and analogue electronics for Burial Chamber Trio while Greg Anderson does bass/subsonics but here their contributions are jointly styled as ‘subbass death throb’, which is as good a description as any of what Side A provides. A multi-level, pulsing drone, beginning quite high in tone and oscillating slightly, gets gradually lower until a deep bass drone surges in and just carries on flowing, expansive and overwhelming. There are occasional spikes of feedback within this but they seem more unintentional than anything and don’t interrupt the smooth lava of drone. The effect of such deep, unending bass is undeniably ominous but also restful; there’s no point resisting it as it doesn’t let up.

It would be foolhardy to try and suggest that this music was anything other than militant minimalism but somehow it doesn’t induce the itchy irritation that is produced by listening to KTL, the avant-garde project of Anderson’s SunnO))) colleague Stephen O’Malley. This could, of course, just be a matter of personal taste but there is something strangely satisfying about a wave of tone that never falters, always progressing and expanding, whereas the incidental, spasmodic pops and clicks of KTL never seem to go anywhere or amount to anything. And although the throbbing bass never backs off there is definite change going on, subtle as it is: creaks and scratches of distortion emerge from the wall of drone and a buzzing, frayed edge to the sound develops as the minutes pass.

Above all, it is the meticulous care with which the layers of drone are sustained that compels and draws you in. The sound is almost like breathing, expanding and contracting but never faltering enough to leave a gap. Gradually, a rawer more distorted feel colours the tones but not enough to become dissonant, rising into mellifluous strands of feedback that interweave with the bass as the side fades out.

Typically for Southern Lord, ‘WVRM’ is a lavishly presented package that any mere photograph can’t do justice to, featuring extensive artwork by Seldon Hunt. Side A of the picture disc shows a huge, spiralling healthy cartoon worm while Side B features the same worm now bloated, diseased and split, lurid greens and yellows where before it was all uniform grey. This disc is housed in a transparent sleeve bearing a line drawing of a monstrous cartoon skull, putrid and crawling with flies and worms. Within that is a transparent inner sleeve showing a writhing mass of maggots (along with the information about the recording). Thus, picture overlays picture and the whole look of the record can change depending on which side of the picture disc is behind which transparent line drawing. It is a densely layered and clever package, much like the music within.

Keeping it all within the Trio, ‘WVRM’ is mixed by Oren Ambarchi and although it remains true enough to the live setting for the crowd noise to be intermittently audible, it is a clear and immediate mix with enough depth to do the multi-layered droning justice. Side B starts with another high tone that is soon overwhelmed by waves of bass, more forceful pulses of sound than were evident on the first side. The high tones crystallise into a gentle feedback drone that overlays these sawing bass surges. Although the feedback has certainly grown stronger, the music never really deviates from its policy of a gentle, implacable flow.

About half way through Side B, the bass briefly disappears, leaving just a single tone of teetering feedback that then gradually falls back to the low drone rumble, now surmounted by a rising whistle of distortion. Finally, it all starts to slowly fade away, this time not applied in the mix (as the with end of Side A) but the actual music itself dying away within the club, finally becoming so quiet that you can hear the people in the audience talking over the muted murmur of bass drone, now felt rather than heard.

It’s at this point that the third member of the Trio decides to pitch in. Attila Csihar, truly the Marmite of metal, is routinely hailed as both a genius and a liability – often simultaneously. Throughout the previous 25 minutes, Attila has contented himself to providing little more than a subtle, eerie, cracked gargling, barely distinguishable from the surrounding drone and actually a highly effective extra texture within the layers of sound. Now that the all-consuming rumbling has petered out to a point of absolute stillness, however, Attila decides to treat everybody to his monkey impersonation. Though, to be fair, “impersonation” doesn’t really do it justice. It really is nothing less than the exact sound of mightily disgruntled ape that bursts from the speakers.

The question, of course, is why? On the sleeve notes, Attila is credited with providing “undead voices” and maybe that’s what he thinks he’s doing (assuming it’s deceased primates we’re talking about). Occasionally, Attila’s approach can be spot on. His performance during ‘Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds’ on SunnO)))’s ‘Dømkirke’ album is truly powerful and unsettling but with ‘WVRM’ there is a jarring mismatch between the mesmerising low droning that drags you into its depths and then Attila’s simian jabberings right at the end. It seems like a misjudgement but there’s always the possibility that it’s a deliberate joke. After all, Burial Chamber Trio has a profoundly silly biography that describes them as “the corpses of three prime-evil cavemen” and Seldon Hunt’s darkly humorous cartoons are central to their presentation. The fact that they have a singer who looks like an escaped mental patient in middle-aged drag and sounds like a demented gibbon may just be the final wry laugh at the expense of the avowedly grim and ‘kvlt’ audience they know they’ll attract.

Ultimately, you may think Attila’s contribution works as a suitably unearthly howl or you may just chuckle resignedly at it or you may lift the needle off a couple of minutes before the end. Whatever, it would be nice if Anderson and O’Malley collaborated as frequently with Runhild Gammelsæter as they do with Attila Csihar but you can’t have everything.

‘WVRM’ is an object lesson in pure, controlled, simplistic, unashamed drone. If you think SunnO))) have been getting a bit prog rock of late then the Burial Chamber Trio is for you. Of course, if you can’t stand drone then in all probability vomiting and narcolepsy are going to result from listening to it, but as the Trio themselves state - “YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED”.