Kevin Drumm - "Guillain-Barre (excerpt)" (Imperial Distortion)
Though his beginnings were of a decidedly sparse and subtle sort, Chicagoan Kevin Drumm is best known for two burners, Sheer Hellish Miasma and Land of Lurches, albums that threaten not simply to peel paint from walls, but to crumple the house altogether. These discs, and others of their vintage in Drumm's discography, are brimming with visceral noise, dense maelstroms of harsh sound that offer little in the way of mercy or respite. Imperial Distortion, despite its title, is nearly as complete a departure from Drumm's gnarly behemoths as the aforementioned discs were from his work for prepared guitar, the violent, gritty assault eschewed in favor of a sound far more placid. Drumm's not gone soft; there's a helping of ominous menace imbued in segments of Imperial Distortion and a little in the way of jarring surprise. Still, there's nary a crash or bang over the duration of the album's double discs, and despite some of the album's dark hues, its ambiance makes for the rare chance to call Drumm's music peaceful, even soothing. Were Drumm a rocker, this might be his album of ballads, but given his typical fare, it's nothing so shallow as that.
Imperial Distortion may not signal a wholesale shift in aesthetic, but it's safe to say that it features a side of Drumm rarely heard before now (though, to be fair, "Snow," a two-parter, made an appearance on a limited edition cassette on Hospital last year). The album is heavy on drone, but the drone isn't always heavy. Much of "More Blood and Guts" drifts by in celestial bliss, and "Romantic Sores" even dispels with the drone to close with a beautiful mingling of bell-like synth tones. Drumm doesn't opt for the simple and overbearing, instead working in a more subtle integration of multiple voices, with careful listening revealing that there's often more at work in a track than the ear might initially notice. Each has a particular timbre that tends to dominate its trajectory, but Drumm isn't content to simply put his creations in motion and watch from afar. Climates shift, tones grow and ebb, and voices intermingle: Imperial Distortion might be minimalist, but like any good drone, that doesn't mean it's stagnant.
The about face that Imperial Distortion represents in Drumm's ouvre is perhaps the sexiest of its selling points, but the album is rewarding on a level beyond watching the angry aural ogre go gentle. Drumm's foray into more ambient music manages to hold interest over nearly two hours of music, with his keen ear for arrangement and interaction present in spades. It's a welcome detour, though likely not a long one: at the album's conclusion, as "We All Get it in the End" suddenly shifts from a weighty synth drone into a surprising cloud of dense static, there's a reassurance that Drumm is not likely to forsake his love for damage and destruction anytime soon.