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En - Already Gone

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Artist: En

Album: Already Gone

Label: Students of Decay

Review date: May. 1, 2012

Drones, the line goes, are easy. You don’t have to worry much about structure. Beginnings and endings are arbitrary. Tempo isn’t a concern. You just hold a note, go with it and everything flows. It’s a neat (and, yes, easy) way for record store clerks (or whatever you call those guys that write up verbose descriptions for online shops) to slot a release into familiar territory. It’s also a way for critics to browbeat albums that simplify their musical materials to, say, a few held notes, a particularly resonant chord or continuously bowed strings.

The problem with this simplifying moniker is that much of the music we apply the word drone to isn’t anything of the sort. A drone is a very defined form: a single tone held for the duration of a piece. What we call drone music is really more a reduction of musical elements and the extension of what remains after that. It’s music that’s about drilling down into musical material to find just that which is essential — a texture, a series of overtones, a tangy dissonance, a clear theme, moments of enveloping atmosphere — and reconstructing them into a rich, satisfying whole. It’s a lot of things, but a one-note show it is not.

A group like En, the duo of Maxwell Croy (who runs the Root Strata label) and James Devane, is the sort of group that gets quickly grouped under the drone umbrella. With koto, a Rhodes piano, guitar, melodica and some hefty processing, they make massively detailed walls of textured sound that emerge and recede amorphously. They deal in held tones, usually two or three soft, organ-like swells that seethe and shift in the background. Their pieces move slowly and change is subtle. They might use drones as part of their vocabulary, but the five pieces on their second album, Already Gone, are far from being drones.

“Lodi” and “The Sea Saw Swell” feature bass lines that tether the short, effervescent themes and swirling counterpoint. The title track plays like a cloudier, more synthetic reading of Joe Zainwul’s “In a Silent Way.” (Seriously, much of Already Gone seems to extend on the melodic unspooling that Miles Davis and group laid down in the first four minutes of that seminal 1969 jam.) And if you’re still thinking that Croy and Devane are making simple music, check the 20-minute “Elysia.” It cycles through four or five parts — blissful chant-like figures on bowed strings, tape-saturated crackle, a dense chorus of rippling strings from the koto — all over a bed of held, tumescent tones. Those held tones do act as drone figures, but how we hear them shifts as what is played around them changes. It’s like a musical version of Josef Albers’ theory of color interaction.

So, no, drone music like En’s is not easy. Sure, it tries to sound easy, but that’s the point. Every time I hear the descending 12-note figure that opens “Elysia,” I feel my blood pressure drop. “Elysia” makes you realize that sounding easy is hard. This word drone just won’t do anymore: we need a new way of talking about music like this. Whatever that way is, I don’t know. But Already Gone is a good place to start looking.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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