The Evil Side of Ambient
Children of Doom Metal
Drone doom is a subgenre of doom metal, which is a type of heavy metal that is characterized by being slow and, well, heavy. Heavier than usual, I suppose. That legendary foursome Black Sabbath, who are so often credited with founding heavy metal as a whole, accomplished that feat by playing what would later be known as doom metal. Although metal can now be divided into black metal, death metal, thrash metal, progressive metal, power metal, symphonic black metal, melodic death metal, blackened death metal, deathened black metal, and an endless list of other permutations, if Black Sabbath was first then doom metal was too.
Music vs Noise
Drone doom is a mixture of drone (which has elements of noise and ambient) and doom metal. As such, there are some people (close-minded, to be sure) who hesitate or balk at referring to it as music. Okay, they can have their opinion. But music? What the FUCK is music? It's a difficult concept to describe. Basically, music seems to be sound arranged by humans for humans to enjoy. That's not to say a bird's song is unpleasant to hear, and one can appreciate the musicality of it, but for the sake of definition let's exclude that. So rather than depending on rhythm, tone, melody, harmony, and all those boring rules to tell us what may or may not be music, we can just apply the name to sounds we like to listen to.
The Dawn of Earth
Defining music in this way authenticates artists like Merzbow or Aphex Twin, who have been working in noise and ambient music (respectively) for a long time. They've always had an audience but no hope of breaking out into the mainstream, unless some serious cultural changes happen to take place in the next few years. Earth, the band that is largely responsible for inventing drone doom, never hit the mainstream either. Dylan Carlson, Earth's founding and only constant member, did however inspire a number of bands to continue the drone tradition. Earth itself is still around, and still innovating, even to the point that the drone doom label would no longer apply.
Establishing A Legacy: Earth 2
The early days of Earth saw releases such as the 1991 EP Extra-Capsular Extraction and the 1993 full-length magnum opus, Earth 2. The ethos of doom metal is essentially "slow equals heavy." If you develop a particularly impressive riff to play, the slower it gets, the heavier it seems. Lethargy connotes weight. Candlemass proved that songs can be played at 50 bpm and sound just as evil as a Slayer or Megadeth song, if not much more so. Earth applied the concept of minimalism to this idea. Earth 2's three songs are all about twenty minutes long and feature severely drop-tuned, severely distorted guitars that repeat themselves incessantly. Earth 2 is not so much a metal album as it is an hour of electric growling, full of intricate whirlpools, commanding waves, and enchanting, iron sirens. It presented to the ambient music community a chance to feel the raw power and energy that heavy metal presents. Even the most supportive of Earth fans admit they have to be in a certain mood to enjoy Earth 2. It's a work of art, proud and unashamed of itself, but content to waiting for you to accept it. It's a musical ordeal, a trial, and an eye-opening fantastic nightmare.
Boris and the Melvins
Earth was based in Washington at the time of the grunge movement, but existed alongside of that scene rather than in it. The Melvins did the same. Their album Lysol, released in 1992, featured ten minutes of droning. Though they never released a full album of pure drone doom, the Melvins often would include a track of it somewhere on a regular album. Houdini's sixth track "Hag Me" is an example of this. Boris, on the other hand, wholly accepted drone into their lives. Their debut Absolutego came out in 1996, and was an hour of heavy feedback and slow, rolling riffs, reminiscent of Earth's early albums. Boris would continue to experiment with lighter drone, often building up to and culminating in a conversion to post-rock or progressive rock (see: Boris at Last: -Feedbacker-, Flood).
SUNN 0))) arrived late on the scene, but soon made up for it by becoming the very embodiment of the genre. In 1998 their Grimmrobe Demos was released, and through the '00s SUNN 0))) put out six albums and four EPs, not to mention numerous collaborations by both members (Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson). SUNN (the 0))) is silent) started out as an Earth tribute band, and although Earth was slowly distancing itself from the drone doom label, SUNN 0))) remained in Earth 2 worship. Opinions on SUNN 0))) are extremely divided within the genre. Fans say that they are fully responsible for making drone doom what it is. Other argue that Earth's albums are all a drone doom fan really needs, and SUNN 0))) doesn't hold a candle to Earth. While I am personally in agreement of the latter side, I would not pass up the chance to see SUNN 0))) perform live. See anamnesis' writeup for an explanation of the experience that is sure to either intrigue or frighten you.
A Defining Moment in Drone: Altar
In 2006 the record label founded by SUNN 0))), Southern Lord, released an album that would attempt to sum up the creed of drone doom in one profound blow. Though officially a SUNN 0)))/Boris collaboration, Altar was much more. This was no split album, but rather a total group effort from many musicians, from the ground up to the finished result. Among the enlisted were Kim Thayil (guitarist of Soundgarden), Joe Preston (former bassist for Melvins and High on Fire), and of course the esteemed Dylan Carlson, drone's Prime Mover. Altar was pressed in many limited coloured vinyl editions, some of which are still available. To consider the album successful would be an understatement; it is considered one of the best releases of the SUNN 0))) and Boris discographies both. Beyond that, it was symbolic of a fellowship between musicians pigeonholed into an ultra-specific genre that barely exists. Though Altar probably has no hope of reaching any more of an audience than other drone albums, for the already-established drone audience it is a must-hear, must-own, must-love piece.
Not exactly lending itself to innovation, drone doom may have run its course. There is only so much you can do with guitar-based music that is low, impossibly distorted, and full of repetitive stretched-out chords. Earth recently released The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull, a twangy, minimalist, Morricone-inspired soundtrack to a long drive in the American Southwest. While the patient, lazy cascade of guitar strings makes it accessible to the droner crowd, Bees Made Honey is not drone doom. I'm tempted to describe it as post-drone*, but that just drips pretentiousness. Boris has not made a drone album in a number of years, and though SUNN 0))) is making the same kind of noise they always were, their 2005 effort Black One was a watered-down Earth 2, in my opinion. However, Toronto duo Nadja has been exploring some interesting directions with industrial-tinged drone, and is currently one of the most active bands in the scene. If drone doom is nearly done with it will not be missed, for it will have left behind enough of a mark to secure its immortality, or at least something close to it.
* I checked last.fm to see if post-drone was a tag yet. Apparently I'm the first to come up with it. There is a drone post-rock tag, under which I found, surprise surprise, Earth and Boris. I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether something is heavy enough to be considered metal or rock, especially in an instance like this.