These days, the difference between drone and ambient music feels like more of a semantic question than a sonic one. One person’s Sunn O))) is another’s Stars of the Lid, and plenty of bands and solo sound-explorers erase any dividing lines between drone and dark ambient music.
To my ears, drone and dark ambient music demand close attention. The meditative and all-consuming nature of that music often feels devotional, or even transcendent. It's clear that modern minimalist music speaks to something primordial within all of us –– highlighting drone's truest essence and earliest purpose.
The most sublime drone obliterates time and space while shaping other worlds and other states of being. And if you're a fan of those kinds of imaginative and consciousness-expanding experiences, then great news: the self-titled debut from New Zealand duo Hum Sufferer is drone as fuck.
Hum Sufferer’s first release is a heavyweight emotional journey. But that’s not much of a surprise. The Wellington-based duo features Callum Gay and Donnie Cuzens, who are also members of the often soul-stirring band Spook the Horses. The defining characteristic of Spook the Horses’ career thus far has been their willingness to explore creative pathways. That’s seen the band transform their original post-rock aesthetic into something more indefinable and adventurous.
Spook the Horses transfigured their sound once again on their last album, 2017’s People Used to Live Here, which was their starkest and most unsettling release yet. Hum Sufferer’s debut is also dark, atmospheric, and disquieting. The band’s evocative music also conjures a sense of desolation, much like Spook the Horses’ does, but Hum Sufferer take a different route to reach that destination.
Hum Sufferer reshape guitar, synth, and bass, utilising drone’s sacred trinity of distortion, delay, and reverb. Giant waves of tenebrous sound rise and fall on their EP, and a doom-drenched aura shrouds all. Three of the EP’s tracks were “summoned live” in December 2017 by Gay and Cuzens, but the EP’s final untitled track was crafted by Cuzens alone. None of the EP’s songs contain a hint of the scorching summer temperatures the band must have experienced during their recording. Instead, every one of the songs is bleak and bitterly cold. Epic opener “Death Throes” is a cataclysmic drone that rattles the mind with its engulfing presence. Crank the volume to bone-fragmenting levels, and nerve-twisting tendrils wrap around you as walls of noise ebb and flow. No question, the seismic ‘power ambient’ charisma of a band like Sunn O))) is in full effect on “Death Throes”.
“Death Throes” looms large like the gorgeously realised black hole in Interstellar. But the track also has an intimacy that prods at your psyche, like the early work of Kreng. “Death Throes” transitions into the subsonic second track, “Solastalgia”, and it’s worth pointing out that solastalgia is a term describing the distress some feel when faced with environmental changes.
If “Death Throes” was meant to forewarn of that distress, or even evoke Gaia’s last gasps, then rest assured that Hum Sufferer convey both of those notions with expressive finesse. The hypnotic and slow-as-molasses crawl of “Solastalgia” sets tension and trepidation at the forefront as well. And the follow-up, “Death Throes II”, delivers more anxiety-inducing drone, laced with impenetrable gloom.
“Death Throes II” is undeniably unnerving, but it’s also constructed with subtle shading, and its eeriness is downright meditative, fuelling as much unease as it does awe. The best thing about “Death Throes II” is that it reminds me of the work of Thomas Köner, who also paints palpably chilling portraits using a sparse sound palette.
Hum Sufferer's EP features a strong sense of cosmic horror throughout. But whether it’s born from terrestrial or celestial concerns, that constant presence of ominous tension is superbly rendered. And that's underscored by the deep, dark, and monastic resonance of the EP’s final untitled track. I have to admit that Hum Sufferer’s intentions might be very different to my interpretations. I mean, the EP could literally be a lengthy commentary on the bleak prospect of 30 years of mortgage repayments. Or even a long-form hymn about the rising cost of beard wax. Who knows? Who the fuck cares?
Drone's a minimalist form of communication where it's frequently left up to the listener to decipher any message therein. Hum Sufferer don't explicitly state their intentions anywhere, and I'd argue that divining your own meaning is not only an essential part of drone but also makes the connection to the music that much more intimate.
I suppose I should throw some tough criticisms in here too, right? Well, here goes. Hum Sufferer’s debut isn’t going to appeal to a wide audience. (Although, I doubt there was any great expectation of that occurring.) The EP’s stark texture and stripped-down sound will clearly also be an issue for some. Plus, Hum Sufferer aren’t going to be wooing any fence-sitters. If you’d hoped for harsher fault-finding, well, sorry. I just really enjoyed the EP.
In fact, Hum Sufferer channel the spectre of existential dread exceptionally well. And there's a truly captivating grace to their grimness. Ultimately, that’s what makes the duo’s first release so inviting. We all know how alluring darkness can be, and listening to Hum Sufferer's debut is like slowly sinking into a vast black ocean of sound. Sure, it’s an unnerving experience, but it’s beautiful all the same.
Hum Sufferer was mastered by Bryan Tabuteau at Moliere Recording, and Tabuteau deserves another round of applause for his increasing range of excellent studio handiwork. The EP is out on cassette via Auckland label Swampkult Productions: see here for copies. The band promises a digital release soon.