If descriptors such as pedal effects, warped electronics, pulse generators, piercing feedback, prepared guitar, tape manipulations, modular synthesizer, and ear-bursting computer-assisted noise set your heart aflutter, then Relief, the latest 40-minute bout of audio experimentation from Kevin Drumm, is set to be a dream (or should that be nightmare?) come true.
The Chicago, Illinois-based musician emerged from the city’s experimental scene in the ‘90s, and has since recorded 40-plus albums of challenging and often nerve-shredding noise. His array of splits, CDs, LPs, and limited release CDRs traverse the auditory spectrum, from tension-ridden ambient and electro-acoustic suites through to massively distorted, dense and decimating guitar and synth compositions. Drumm’s work draws from metal (the blackest of the black), musique concrete, improvised noise, and experimental electronica, with sonic modifications via the laptop featuring heavily. Collaborating with a raft of noted experimental musicians, as well as producing a classic piece of blackened noise on Frozen by Blizzard Winds with Lasse Marhaug in 2002, Drumm is a preeminent sculptor of buckling and confronting noise. His 2002 album, Sheer Hellish Miasma (perhaps the most aptly titled album ever), 2008’s Imperial Distortion, and 2009’s Imperial Horizon are among the very best noise albums ever recorded.
Relief finds Drumm continuing his quest to balance nail-biting noise with meditative maelstroms. Drumm has never taken the pedestrian route, and on Relief he once again offers no quarter, with static, hiss, distortion and feedback smothering snippets of abstract haunted radio and melodies that scratch towards the surface. Recorded at Drumm’s fittingly named Worse than Burning Offal studio, Relief is a barrage of noise, but there’s also a great deal of conspicuous forethought and nuance in that battering.
Noise for noise’s sake is all well and good. Blot out the world, vent your frustrations, howl at indifference, or indulge in a little nihilistic primal warfare—they all have their place in noise. But Relief offers something deeper. You’d be hesitant to call it moderation, but there’s certainly a sense of discipline. It would be easy for Drumm to simply overwhelm and asphyxiate; his discography is full of remorselessly suffocating tracks. However, there’s a thread running throughout Relief that underscores meticulous care in its construction—a keen eye on its overarching scope, and a considered ear on its underlying excursion.
Relief is an aggressive transmission that tilts towards the hostile end of Drumm’s sonic palette, yet subtlety resides in the album’s static-laden core. Overall, the pulse of Relief is strong and steady; the flurries of distortion are shaped and guided progressively forward, unremitting in their ire, and unlike Drumm’s more overt dronescapes, Relief is not equipped to provide any succor. Instead, waves of disorienting and discomforting noise phase in and out, with suggestions of buried melodies always there, lurking below. Relief is, like all of Drumm’s best work, paradoxical. It’s a cacophony of noise, yet there’s clear beauty in that tempestuousness.
Ultimately, Relief is 40 minutes of recognizable brush strokes from Drumm. But although he builds his abrasive hymns from components familiar to countless noise artists, it’s the personal evocativeness of his work that hooks you and drags you down to abyssal depths. As Editions Mego (Drumm’s label for this release) suggests, Relief is a “hypnotic rollercoaster ride through the terrain of [Drumm’s] unique vision”, and it is distinctive and individual. The intimate nature of Drumm’s dissonant expressions ensures the resulting chaos encourages further listens. The desire to investigate and reinvestigate Drumm’s work is always there, especially as his music can overload the senses. The ache to unpack, understand and experience the catharsis entombed in his work is enticing, and at its strongest, addictive.
Of course, Drumm is always in command of his creations, no matter how disruptive they are—dishing out the stimulants and soporifics as he sees fit. Still, as much as he dispenses pummeling walls of noise, there are always crawl spaces and fissures in his remorseless layering on of warping textures. Through these you can catch a glimpse of the fiery nucleus of many of his tracks, and in Relief‘s case, such fractures reveal a sense of restraint in tending to the inferno. Drumm knows full well that he can execute the slaughterhouse viciousness at any time, with pitiless efficiency and decimating power. But Relief‘s greatest strength is that you know such threats loom large, and while it ceaselessly gnaws at your anxiety, Drumm never delivers the coup de grace. In that sense, Relief sits alongside Drumm’s cruelest and harshest work.