Metal for Meditation
What comes to mind when you think about heavy-metal music? Maybe it's burly dudes headbanging in unison or a violent mosh pit.But these stereotypes don't exist in the realm of drone doom, an experimental subgenre that disassembles everything you know about metal and slows it way down to a minimal instrumental, almost ambient level. It's a form of music that until recently had been confined to music snobs.Drone doom is now slowly seeping into popular consciousness; for example, the director Jim Jarmusch's most recent film, The Limits of Control, features music from the most well-known (but still obscure) bands of the genre: Earth, Boris, and the punctuationally innovative Sunn O))). All are influential in their own right, but the true mastermind of this genre is Dylan Carlson, the sole continuous member of the two-decades-old Earth."Earth grew out of a desire to be different," says Carlson from his home in Seattle. "When I started, music was all about being fast. It was almost like this jock thing. We were reacting against that."There are reasons Carlson's name may be familiar. He got his start in the Seattle punk and grunge scene of the 1980s and 1990s, at one point living with his good friend Kurt Cobain. Later, he would purchase the gun that the Nirvana front man used to commit suicide in 1994.Carlson and Cobain shared space on Sub Pop Records back then, too, and Earth managed to release three full-length albums on the Seattle label in the 1990s. The band took a lengthy hiatus shortly after Cobain's death so that Carlson could, as he says, "get my shit back together." Earth finally started touring again around the releases of Hex in 2005 and The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull in 2008.To see a drone- or doom-metal band like Earth perform live is a test of one's mental stamina. There are elements of heavy metal-low-tuned guitars, distortion, an often melancholy sense of dread-but it lacks the violently urgent speed, and the feeling that you might be dragged to Hell at any moment. The result is a meditative, trancelike state that forces you to think, feel, and live in the moment. It brings you back, quite appropriately, to Earth."It's more about the overall experience," says Greg Anderson, one half of Sunn O))), named after the brand of amps used by Earth. "In some ways the set is one long song with different movements. I think a lot of times people just get wrapped up and entranced in it, and they lose a sense of time and where things are."Sunn O))) was born in 1998 in the wake of Earth's hiatus; Anderson admits that it began as more of a tribute to Carlson and his band than its own entity. Like his predecessors, Anderson had previously dabbled in hardcore, punk, and metal, but nothing had clicked until Sunn O))) came along. "All my life, I've been playing music in bands that are striving to be something, but when I threw that out the window it became the most successful thing I've ever done," says Anderson.Both bands and their contemporaries imprison the audience in a slow-moving wall of sound, mostly free from vocals and musical conventions. Their long, lumbering soundscapes might not put them in the Billboard Top 100, but maybe they can benefit the inhabitants of a world used to instant gratification."It just seems like no one has any space anymore, so what we do is create a space for people to just relax and be away from technology," says Carlson. "We've so enslaved ourselves to all these artificial experiences and overstimulation that I hope what we are is an antidote to the modern world."Above: Contemporary classical sheet music by Nicholas Morera.