In The Drift: A Beginner’s Guide To The UK’s Drone Underground

David Keenan chronicles some of the most important UK drone producers since the late ’70s

The UK’s drone underground first took shape in the late ’70s and early ’80s, downwind of original industrial groundbreakers Throbbing Gristle’s disassembling of rock music. In their wake, many secretive underground cells were activated across the UK, inspired to mint a new form of intuitive music that married the primitive application of domestic junk and consumer electronics with a vision that looked more to 20th century avant-garde composers, Krautrock and contemporary sound art than bastardised rock & roll. The saga is still unfolding, but below are some of the key map-points for the would-be navigator of contemporary drone.

Paul Kelday - One Dimensional Side A

Forced Nostalgia CD

Paul Kelday
One Dimensional
UFO Mongo LP

1979-1985 is a compilation of tapes released during the post-industrial cassette “boom” in the early ’80s by the duo of Andrew Cox and David Elliott. MFH turned up on Dave Henderson’s infamous The Elephant Table compilation while Elliott is possibly best known for his fanzine Neumusik and his championing of new music in Sounds. They were also the brains behind one of the most enigmatic of cassette labels, York House Recordings, AKA YHR, which released tapes by Cluster, Conrad Schnitzler, MB, Asmus Tietchens and more.

YHR also released the bulk of the MFH recordings and the best are compiled here. The sounds are glorious. There are lonely synth and shortwave works that capture perfectly the circumstances of their creation – in bedrooms and campus laboratories in the middle of the night – odd minimal drone works, hazy shortwave constructs that relocate Kraftwerk’s “Europe Endless” to the view from a Cornish cottage, Throbbing Gristle-influenced tape work and cracked beats... it’s a fascinating example of the way that austere Krautrock and avant-garde music was mis-translated by obsessive bedroom operatives in the early 1980s.

The late Paul Kelday came out of the same tape void as MFH. His brother was a member of unsung weirdo/free music UK group New 7th Music, a group that Paul also occasionally contributed to. However his solo work is something else and One Dimensional bundles some of his best music from the mid-’80s, all of which was originally released on cassette. It’s the true sound of synthesised lonely, with barren electronics saturated with ethereal radio broadcasts and ghostly emissions, all structured with an elegiac feel for slow reveals and with a strange choral/religious quality that is unsettlingly beautiful.

Colin Potter - Rooftops

Colin Potter
Two Nights
Deep Distance LP

Entering Again
Sacred Summits LP

Colin Potter is best known these days as a member of Nurse With Wound. But back in the day his ICR label, as well as his IC Studio, based in a water tower in Preston, in the North of England, situated him at the epicentre of UK drone. The past few years have seen much of his previously obscure cassette releases upgraded to vinyl, a public service that has recalibrated our understanding of the way that The Drift came out of industrial music via Krautrock before dissolving into hallucinatory landscapes and endlessly sustained tone works.

Two Nights was originally released on ICR in 1981. It documents Potter’s first experiment in playing live in the studio, with a spare set-up of synth, sequencer, drum machine, guitar and basic effects. Potter combines a dark DIY gothic atmosphere with the kind of boxing glove arpeggios of a Conrad Schnitzler and then bleeds searing solo guitar all over the top. Entering Again dives even deeper, with five tracks recorded at his home studio between the years 1979 and 1983 that have a crude bedroom punk appeal and that join the dots between Throbbing Gristle’s death disco and a teenage German Theatre Of Eternal Music.

The New Blockaders - Changez Les Blockeurs Part 1 (Excerpt)

The New Blockaders
Changez Les Blockeurs
No Label LP

Ferial Confine
The Full Use of Nothing
Siren CD

Not exactly a “drone” record per se, The New Blockaders’ (AKA brothers Richard and Philip Rupenus) debut self-released album from 1982 scrambled so many circuits that their influence is inestimable, inspiring everyone from early Japanese noise acts through to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. But it’s the specifics of their approach more than the ferocity of their attack that draws them into The Drift.

Recorded in a shed at the bottom of their parents’ garden, Changez Les Blockeurs is both ultra-sophisticated and jaw-droppingly crude, a freely improvised electro-acoustic session that utilises the sound of wheelchair runners, broken glass and bowed metal in order to access a zone of complete brain-stilling gridlock. One of the first post-Throbbing Gristle recordings to run an umbilical to the classical noise of the 20th century, they even included a manifesto inside that tied up their violent aesthetic with Luigi Russolo’s notorious 1913 Art Of Noises text. Listen closely and you can hear the sound of rain falling on the roof of the shed, accidently underscoring the obsessive interest in specific area sonorities and field recordings that would come to define the sound of The Drift.

Like The New Blockaders, Andrew Chalk and his on/off collaborator in Ferial Confine, Darren Tate, both came out of the wilds of the industrial underground before striking deeper into more abstract and personally resonant areas. Originally released on cassette in 1985, The Full Use of Nothing lives up to its name with a series of massively reverberant klanging drone works derived from variously excited sheets of metal. The New Blockaders would make successive use of Chalk’s primitive sound sculptures as raw material for their own recordings, but nothing comes close to the unearthly and bloody-minded beauty of this monomaniacal classic.

Monos: Sleep (edit)

Die Stadt 10-inch

Die Stadt 2xCD

Ora were birthed in the late ’80s and were one of the key short-lived group projects to come out of The Drift, with Darren Tate assisted by Andrew Chalk and Colin Potter. Ora mirrored the work of communal Japanese units like Taj Mahal Travellers and Marginal Consort, combining free improvisation with tape work, electronics and deep field recordings. The music is heady with a phantom sense of place and with a deep, organic/microtonal feel that makes for some of the most vegetal drone music, especially on 2004’s retrospective 10-inch Morgendammerung where the duo of Tate and Potter are joined by free UK saxophonist Lol Coxhill and a key member of the Japanese wing of The Drift, Daisuke Suzuki.

With Chalk concentrating more on his own solo work and his duo with Christoph Heemann, Mirror, Tate took time out from making music before returning under the guise of Monos with occasional help from Chalk and Potter. Generators, from 2005, presents a series of black hole-deep drone works inhabited by eerie electronic wraiths and ghostly radio waves.

Organum - Untitled 1

Birds’ Wings Were Glued to Their Bodies and Their Feet Froze to the Ground
Die Stadt CD

David Jackman
Die Stadt 10-inch

Machine Guns
Die Stadt 7-inch

David Jackman participated in Cornelius Cardew’s experimental music ensemble the Scratch Orchestra before going on to form Organum in the early 1980s, a group that quickly migrated from their abstract/industrial roots into a full blown free improvising/sound art ensemble that at points featured Andrew Chalk. Jackman’s secretive nature and his refusal to do interviews have led to much speculation but certain obsessions recur throughout his catalogue, particularly the sound of heavy 20th century machinery. He is rumoured to be a huge fan of The Jesus & Mary Chain.

Flak is one of a series of recordings made by Jackman based around the sounds of military conflict.

1999’s Birds’ Wings... sees Jackman joined by Michael Prime, Emma O'bong, Mat Fox and Robert Hampson of Loop/Main. The music is metallic yet sensual, unyielding and tonally dense; a boneyard of bowed sound sculptures set to singing, obsessively, to themselves. Flak is one of a series of recordings made by Jackman based around the sounds of military conflict, with a sleeve that lists reports of downed planes seen over Bremen during the Second World War. The A-side mirrors the sounds of twisted metal and the roar of air raid sirens, presenting an airborne collage of industrial debris as an uncanny memorial for unknown fighter pilots. Machine Guns pushes this approach even further, a collage of the sounds of automatic rifles sourced from the Imperial War Museum that through obsessive repetition takes on an air of tragic, mechanistic grandeur.

Andrew Chalk - Mgachi

Andrew Chalk
The Cable House
Faraway Press LP/CD

Chalk’s solo work remains the apex of the The Drift, combining small instruments, field recordings, piano, guitar and reels of tape to make some of the loneliest and unsettlingly beautiful drone music. Mostly issued via his own private imprint, Faraway Press, all releases come with painstakingly hand-assembled packaging featuring Chalk’s own distinctive illustration work, maintaining an English arts and crafts aesthetic that runs all the way back to his earliest cassettes. The Cable House, from 2009, consists of a series of blurry sound environments all realised using electronically treated piano. The A-side is made up of five shorter tracks that suspend single notes in lugubrious tape treatments and subtle sonic dislocations while the flip consists of a beautiful side-long piece that further dilates the sounds and ups the emotional ante while working to a more orchestral scale. Mesmerising and profoundly sad, this is a classic recording from the UK master of out-of-focus drone poetry.

Darren Tate
Calm in a Teacup
Fungal CD

Secret Mantra
Fungal CD

Darren Tate remains one of the most prolific and consistently weird UK soundists. Working from his home studio in York, he releases most of his solo music via his own Fungal imprint in tiny editions, often in elaborate handmade packages complete with bonus paintings or framed collage work. His work varies wildly, running from semi-static field recordings animated by little but the rush of air against the microphone through more fully punked psych-folk works, but all of his releases are characterised by an uncanny sense of stillness at their centre.

Various found objects are bowed, squeaked and scraped, all of which Tate doses with liberal doses of F/X.

2012’s Calm in a Teacup is a great snapshot of the early UK drone underground centered on Tate and Chalk and was recorded between the years 1986 and 87 in Tate’s garden and garage. This is some of his earliest solo work and has aspects of the hands-on metal-scraping-in-a-shed industrial ritual feel of early New Blockaders or Ferial Confine but rendered with that still, wide-open pastoral/documentary style that defines the bulk of his work. Various found objects are bowed, squeaked and scraped, all of which Tate doses with liberal doses of F/X. More punk primitive and less meditative than the later work of Tate or Andrew Chalk, Calm in a Teacup perhaps aligns them more to the whole Organum/David Jackman tradition of bowed metal sculpture and DIY post-industrial aggression.

2014’s Secret Mantra is classic contemporary Tate. Released in a hand-numbered edition of only 100 copies to mark the 50th release on Fungal, it features eleven tracks scored for synth, acoustic guitar, radio, bells, rattles and clock that generate the sounds of an eternal twilight, with an eerie nocturnal atmosphere given sudden lunar swells and low end tectonics, while distant gamelan melodies and narcotic shortwave tones circle deep in the distance.

Ian Middleton - Lonely Highway

Ian Middleton
Well of Sorrows
Skire LP

Ian Middleton has been making some of the most emotionally barren and devastatingly lonely electronic drone music from a secret location in Central Scotland since the mid-’90s. Well of Sorrows perfectly captures the odd timeless and placeless appeal of his work, with a series of tone poems to solitary standing waves cut with austere drone conceptions that sing like distant satellites. The sound is focussed on hypnotic dilations of time and space, with long, reflective tones combined in high, desolate constructs that feel as deep as mirrors.

Middleton exists in a singular zone, combining blank autobiographical detail with long, slow pans into the empty depths of the night time. Previously a confirmed loner, Middleton has started to make connections with the arc of The Drift, with Well of Sorrows released on fellow UK drifter Tom James Scott’s Skire label.

Robert Haigh - Clear Water

Robert Haigh
Strange and Secret Things
Siren CD

Tom James Scott
Skire LP

UK drone music’s drift from the sounding of industrial debris and hallucinatory field recordings to pastoral piano works might seem unlikely until you connect them with an overriding interest in percussive tonality, from the erotic vibratory potential of scraping and banging metal through the pitter-patter of rain on the New Blockaders’ roof to the piano’s hammering on high-carbon steel strings.

Robert Haigh’s has been a particularly long, strange trip. Starting off as a recording artist on industrial legends Nurse With Wound’s United Dairies imprint, he went on to form Omni Trio, who cut a series of sophisticated drum & bass sides for Moving Shadow. Between all this, he experimented with improvised and composed works for piano, resulting in a startling series of solo albums for the Siren label across the 2000s. Strange and Secret Things presents a series of gentle, forlorn piano works that feel as if they are played by a somnambulist walking a dream world of his own creation.

Tom James Scott is a young, classically trained English guitarist whose work connects with the UK drone stream. Working alongside Andrew Chalk, both in Chalk’s most recent group project Elodie and on Scott’s own recordings, his is a music of melancholy memorial, incorporating bird song, slow, glissing tones and spare piano lines to generate reveries of recovered time.

By David Keenan on February 23, 2015

On a different note