Before this year, Kyle Bobby Dunn’s singular shade of ecstatic ambient drone music managed to flit by in the periphery of my tastes. His album releases seemed like big occasions to many friends, but I only listened, it seemed, in the midst of ambient playlists and random spins through Spotify or Youtube. I always enjoyed what I heard, but my attention was swamped by the constant snowblind bliss of the experience – the entire point of listening to hours of ambient music at a time, lost in headphones.
For someone who wrote a list called the 32 best ambient albums ever made, I was hilariously surprised by how quickly I fell in love with his sound. The two tracks on this split LP, by Dunn and Wayne Robert Thomas, make a convincing case for the power of sustained ambient drone in the year 2018.
I should mention that in addition to Dunn’s relative unfamiliarity, Thomas is an entirely new name to me; my first impressions of these two pieces were nearly devoid of context, a rare treat in this age. Almost nothing hits our ears without ancillary information anymore – in a way, this new set felt like hearing a burned CD from a friend with nothing but a hastily Sharpie’d title for identification. I got an email, I downloaded some untagged audio files, and I slipped into a deeply comforting minimalist atmosphere.
The first track, “The Searchers,” is Dunn’s piece, a twenty minute tidal wave of blissed-out maximum-minimalist guitar drone that feels like it could go on forever. There’s a sense, right from the opening swarm of stretched-to-infinity tones, gathering and tightening and filling in every possible space, that it will never stop building – and that’s kind of the magic trick here. The song seems to be forever crescendoing, a constant upward, uplifting momentum as the heavily processed guitar sounds swirl and dart around each other, building a lattice that eventually blocks out everything else. The warm, earthen feeling of a live person on a tangible instrument permeates the otherwise celestial experience, grounding the sound in this place and time. There is no percussion, no rhythm to be found, yet this music casts an inexorable spell over the listener, as hypnotic as anything with a constant beat.
Mere seconds into this subtle epic, I already feel subsumed. There’s a pulse and a pull, it’s constant, it’s shifting, and it reveals itself more and more as it grows. By the end, I felt my head sucking backward as the silence rang with echoes of what I’d just heard. I literally said “whoa” to my cats and the blinking baby monitor and the empty room. It got under my skin before I realized what was happening, so completely enveloping my senses, filling the house, that only its sudden absence revealed how completely this piece had overtaken me.
After half a dozen listens, I searched through my last.fm records to find where I’d first heard Dunn. I knew that he’d pockmarked my listening charts over the last several years, but like the music itself, the memories were hazy. It turns out, he was featured on a fantastic ambient drone compilation by Ghostly International in 2011, called SMM: Context. It’s an unlikely setting to appreciate an art form that often depends on its long-form structure for full effect, but it worked. He shared the set with Leyland Kirby (aka The Caretaker), Christina Vantzou, Aidan Baker, Rafael Anton Irisarri, the fun years; it reads like the roster for an all-star drone lineup, because it is. With “The Searchers” sending me reeling back through his discography, Kyle Bobby Dunn is becoming a genre hero to my ears, too.
When asked about his contribution to the set in an interview with Vol.1 Brooklyn, Dunn said, “It starts like if a historical film was going back in time but all the way to the beginning and covering the dinosaurs, the downfall of societies, the wars, the great Western migration and it has a feeling of not ending – the piece I mean.. it holds onto some sun soaked melodies until it fades out like a human or animal takes its last breath.” This is a little bit more specific but basically in line with my experience of the piece.
I felt more intrigued by the way he filled in the context of the two pieces in relation to each other: “Wayne`s counterpoint reminds me of what I often think of in terms of what happens after this life. I am not religious but I feel that even after your own body and mind goes there exists all that around you still and those places and people you touched while you were on earth. I think of it as very American music and I was strongly influenced by American Western films and history over the years and in light of the way the country seems to be dissolving it seemed appropriate I would pair my American-influenced musical theme with a young Midwestern musician who is not super well known but incredibly authentic.”
And suddenly the title of Dunn’s piece clicks into place: The Searchers is perhaps the greatest film by legendary Western director John Ford, who painted the American landscape in panoramic widescreen like no one had ever done before or since. It’s kind of a perfect setup for the second half of this release.
For his first appearance on a vinyl release, Wayne Robert Thomas created something that acts as an environmental foil to the first piece. True to Dunn’s description of an afterlife for his own piece, “Voyevoda” lifts off heavenward immediately, unencumbered by any earthly sense of tangibility. While also created with deeply processed electric guitar sounds, the second twenty minute track answers the staggering energy of the first with a billowing fragility, weightless and vulnerable and ringing with the kind of deeply felt reassurance that nostalgic dreams are made of.
The two form a kind of tidal pull of drone, two complementary shapes ebbing and flowing into each other, on a loop forever if you let them. These immense tracks feel like entire ecosystems unto themselves, a pair of twin worlds orbiting each other in the limitless ambient drone space. It’s perfect for getting lost in, without the vast time commitment of an album like Dunn’s last full length, the two-hour Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness.
Inspiration seems to come from twentieth century minimalists like Gavin Bryars and LaMonte Young as much as modern drone artists like Stars of the Lid and William Basinski. If you’re a fan of any of these folks or the artists listed on that Ghostly compilation, you need to hear this now.
The album arrives May 1, 2018 on cream colored 12″ vinyl and digital from Whited Sepulchre Records and you can preorder and preview on Bandcamp.