Written by Garth Young
After a ride in the desert, this writer became intrigued with the mystique of drone folk. This blog takes a look at some of the artists around the world that make up the drone folk scene, outlining their varied influences and sketching how to find out more about them.
The first time I heard drone folk my roommate, Jon, and I were barreling through the desert towards Tucson, Arizona. Passing through sad little towns, washed out landscapes and unfriendly plants, the instant the tape was over I asked Jon who the hell that was. I needed more of it in my life.
The drone folk band we heard was Pelt. The band was spearheaded for a long time by guitarist and composer Jack Rose, who passed away in 2009. He was a very talented American Primitive style player, often paying homage through his compositions (or even covers) of the legendary John Fahey. The tape I first heard was a live performance titled “The Eighth Day, The Eleventh Month, The Two-Thousand & Twelfth Year”, only 100 copies were made. I will probably never own it as a physical copy.
With just the name Pelt to go off of, and knowing that folk drone was something I had a real interest in, I set off digging through the Internet to find more bands. Digging through associated artists, weird Bandcamp artist pages that smelled of moss, and Youtube suggestions, I’ve found a few artists with pretty reliable quality output.
I first started off learning about drone folk by delving more into Pelt’s music. Rambling, swirling compositions of American folk music and bluegrass with heavy influences from Indian folk music—they often employ ragas—as well as drone music. Their songs range from guitar driven pieces with fiddles and accordion droning on in the background to much softer drones, to entirely textural pieces, to pieces where a banjo will drive the whole piece with one chord. Pelt is one of my favorite bands nowadays. They wear their drone influences on their sleeves and still produce really great folk.
The next artist I discovered was Steven R. Smith. Steven has quite a prolific recording output, having released albums under his own name, as Hala Strana, Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Passerine, Ulaan Markhor, thuja, and mirza. Hala Strana, (Bulgarian for “Salt Beach”) is the folksiest of the bunch. Some of his work, in particular thuja and mirza, is very hard to track down. Ulaan Khol is tinged with psych rock influences, Ulaan Markhor even more so. I wouldn’t classify all of Steven’s music as folk by any means. Many of his records are relatively guitar heavy drawing influence from psych and drone. When he does stray into folk territory he does it very well. Hala Strana is a project that explores aspects of Eastern European folk and blends it seamlessly with dissonance and quiet composition. I’ve yet to find a record with Steven on it that I haven’t enjoyed.
A Finnish group whose name translates to “Chemical Friends”, Kemialliset Ystävät uses toy instruments along with more traditional European folk instruments. They sometimes stray into “freak folk” but many of their pieces are pleasantly droney, and even when they come out with something a little faster paced it’s still quite a treat. Freak Folk is a genre that, like drone folk, takes a few strides away from established folk tradition. By contrast, however, freak folk, sometimes called acid folk, usually has vocals while drone folk often doesn’t, and retains a more upbeat tempo and feel while still incorporating elements of psychedelic music.
Pennsylvania based Fursaxa is a project of Tara Burke. Her work features lots of vocal loops, hand percussion, keyboard drones and guitars to create reverb and heavy, vaguely angelic soundscapes. It’s music that you can go swimming in.
As with much drone and noise music, a lot of this stuff still gets put out on cassette, making it impossible to listen to online. Tomentosa Records distributes tapes from a huge amount of artists and labels and their catalog is worth digging around through. Soft Abuse puts out a lot of material from Steven R. Smith and others. The Jewelled Antler Collective released lots of good material on 3” mini CDs before they went defunct, including thuja, Fursaxa, Kemialliset Ystavat, and others. Finding the drone folk is often as mysterious and misty as the music itself. But with influences ranging from Eastern European Folk and Bluegrass to Raga, Drone, Noise, and others, Drone Folk is a meeting of several streams of musical thought that can suck you right into the confluence and whirling pieces of sound.