How To Make Darkness Visible: Drone Records

Big City Orkestre ‘Drone Gnomes’

In 1993, Drone Records founder Stefan Knappe began releasing 7″ records of experimental, dark ambient, and pseudo-industrial music. Over time his label would serve as a catapult for new musicians and as a playground for artists interested in exploring the boundaries between music and pure sound. Though the label’s name might suggest the atonal compositions of Mirror, Andrew Chalk, or Phill Niblock, the reality of the matter is quite different. Often far more tonal, lush, and musically dynamic than most drone music is, records released on Knappe’s label invite comparisons to the bleakness of Zoviet France, the synthesizer-rich compositions of early Tangerine Dream, and the heavy, viscous sounds of Bass Communion.

Knappe began his work as with Drone by releasing records from Maeror Tri, a dark ambient German trio of which he was a founding member. In the ensuing 15 years he released music from Aube, Francisco López, Big City Orchestra, Noise-Maker’s Fifes, Herbst9, Aidan Baker, Hélice Pied, and many others. Long before these artists would become the darlings of Alien8, Mego, Die Stadt, and other labels, Knappe recognized their ability and released their music on a format not often associated with experimental music. Artists otherwise known for their lengthy and difficult music have released some of their best and most concise work on Drone Records. Fledgling groups looking to find an audience have likely benefited from the 7″ format, too. Previously inert bands become increasingly active after releasing music on Drone and often receive far more visible coverage from various publications thanks to the weight that Knappe’s label carries with it. Simply put, the simple idea of releasing experimental albums on short-format records has been very effective: difficult music is easier to approach in small chunks and 7″ records are collectibles among already versed listeners.

The respect this label has garnered over the years is not simply a matter of Knappe’s taste and ability to find, attract, and expose previously obscure bands. Knappe’s attention to detail and quality control play a large roll in Drone’s success, too. Nearly every record comes housed in a hand-painted or hand-crafted sleeve and is decorated with elaborate labels and high-quality, multi-colored wax. These records stand out among the slew of cheaply produced and often ignored 7″ releases year in and year out; while some artists will abuse the format and employ it to release music cheaply and quickly, Knappe approaches the production of these mini-gems with an unmatched air of seriousness. Not satisfied with leaving these small records in the hands of the punks and heavy metal musicians, Drone Records (along with perhaps more recognizable names like Die Stadt and Touch Records) proved that texture-centric musicians could use the 7″ to their advantage. While experimental groups of some fame have always used 45s to promote their music, their era was dominated by the record in the first place. When tape releases, CDs, and MP3s came to dominate the music world, Knappe went right ahead with releasing short, concise, and powerful records.

Knappe also brings a kind of vague philosophy to the table. He states,

Drone Records distributes music that encourages and requires sensitivity, calls for a critical awareness, has neither any commercial orientation nor does it follow any common marketing trends (hence staying away from an entertainment industry that is focused on profit maximization). Our declared objective is the support and distribution of an intelligent musical culture that foregrounds personal communication and exchange as well as an utmost variety of alternative, experimental and critical contents.

The experimental and critical content of which Knappe speaks often follows a strange kind of “internal” or”spiritual” logic that magnifies the place of the paranormal, religious, and unknown in the world. The website claims that the music released on the label is “for the unconscious, for the irrational mind, for non-linear perception” and dedicated to an unrealized reality, presumably one that can be penetrated, described, and rescued from that void that typifies its existence. Knappe’s pseudo-philosophy activates the imagination and contextualizes the music, but also describes the content of many of the records on the label. In general, drone music wields an abstract power begging for interpretation; the emotional and intellectual content of the music is formed by the listener as much as it is by the artist. Yet, when listening to Soleïlkraast or Lunar Abyss Deus Organum, there’s little doubt that the music is intended for inner space or for telling a particular story. Uses of words like “landscape” or “soundscape” in reviews or descriptions of this kind of music are often metaphorical, but it is not difficult to imagine this music providing an image of Knappe’s aforementioned “unrealized reality.” This meditative and descriptive quality permeates much of the label’s discography and is a reason I frequently find myself checking their website for updates and information. Knappe has even written a thesis on the connection between music and the unconscious mind. Titled “Das Unbewusste Und Der Klang: Psychoanalyse und experimentelle Geräuschmusik,” the paper ostensibly explores the nature of “noise music” and its effect on the human individual beyond immediate and physical sensations. You can download it from the label’s website, but you’ll need to learn to read German, first.

It is this holistic approach to music that attracts me to Drone Records and also to Knappe’s own musical output as part of Troum. Actively thinking about what he writes and releases, Knappe has expanded abstract music’s vocabulary on multiple fronts and has proven himself to be an arbiter of experimental and obscure music in general. Though painful experience has taught me that some young listeners aren’t aware of a turntable’s basic mechanics, the 7″ is virtually the only way to hear Drone Records releases. I rarely find these uploaded anywhere on the internet as most people don’t want to take the time necessary for ripping a record to MP3. There is one helpful and important exception, however. In 2006, Tumult Records released a double CD compilation of records released on Drone. Picked by Tumult’s curator, the compilation includes music from Maeror Tri, Inade, Aube, Reynols, Francisco López, and several others.

You can visit Drone’s website for more information, including PDF files featuring press information for recent releases and interviews with Knappe, some of which are in English.

Reviews of previously mentioned 7″ records are still in the making; I like to listen to my records while I’m reviewing them and I haven’t had the chance to sit down in front of the turntable much this week.

Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you on Tuesday.

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