Kevin Drumm – TroubleOctober 7, 2014
Kevin Drumm is an extraordinarily difficult musician to write about. As I imagine I have said before in various attempts to come to grips with the various dimensions to his work, I have, after years of neglect, been dilligently buying up and listening to several dozen of Drumm’s releases from the past few years. These include a few releases on established labels, but many also have been short-run CDrs pushed out into the world at a pretty rapid rate by Drumm himself. Trouble is a new release on the Editions Mego label, the home of several of Drumm’s more “landmark” releases starting with his Sheer Hellish Miasma back in 2002, the disc that saw the violent switch from quiet, lowercase composition to harsh noise music fully realised. It seems fitting then, given Kevin Drumm’s ability to shift between musical personalities with seeming ease, that Trouble should be one of, it not actually Drumm’s quietest release to date.
Of the many Kevin Drumm releases lining my shelves here, few truly hit the spot completely for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am thoroughly fascinated by the man and his music, and enjoy exploring his output a great deal, but constantly I wish for amalgams of different releases, or for ideas that sometimes feel like sketches sent out on home made CDrs to be more fully fleshed out. Despite the lo-fi looking approach to the sleeve design here, musically Trouble feels like a carefully considered and fully imagined release that has developed through many of Drumm’s other quieter and more “ambient” releases over recent years. It’s fifty-plus minute single track is as singular and focussed as any of his recent material and feels very acutely and precisely crafted. There are no wildly twisted dials or abrupt live edits here, but a neatly resolved composition formed from distant, wailing tones that drift in and out of earshot, never peaking at anything more than very low volume indeed. On one level, its a very calming, restful affair.
Now in the above paragraph I placed the word “ambient” into inverted commas for a reason. Not only does that word carry obvious and not necessarily appealing connotations, but the brief press note to be found at Mego’s website suggests to us that Trouble is “neither ambient nor drone”. Certainly I wouldn’t call this music droney in any way. The sounds, the origin of which isn’t clear but certainly a fair amount of processing seems to have been present, never retain a continuous tone. The gently yearning wails explore the nether regions of the aural spectrum, and maintain a soft, clear timbre but vary from high to low pitches that seem to fall as each cry fades from near nothing to silence. The thing is, and this is perhaps where this album may cause a fair amount of discussion and indeed “trouble” is that if you asked me to describe some kind of archetypal music belonging to the ambient genre it really wouldn’t be far from what can be heard here. Very clearly, Kevin Drumm is an extremely talented and focussed composer who has far more to his work than any new age nonsense, but at the same time, while there is a subtle depth to Trouble, I could also imagine it playing happily in the background of some horrendous reiki parlour without anyone blinking. I would also have believed you, at least on a first cursory listen, if you told me that this was Brian Eno’s latest CD, as musically it feels like a more extremely muted, softened cousin of something like Apollo.
What Trouble really does remind me of however is the briefly alive isolationist subgenre of sorts that revolved around Kevin Martin’s extraordinary compilation for Virgin Records back in the mid nineties. In particular I am reminded of the early work of Thomas Köner, who treated the heavy tones of caressed and softly beaten gongs, removing any attack, to create a dark, spookily atmospheric series of releases that have a similarly sombre tone to Trouble. The difference here though is the dramatically reduced volumes, as Trouble never breaks into anything more than a murmur, the sound staying far enough out of reach, lost enough in the fog to retain a certain mysterious quality.
This is an album that really does live at the edges of what pompous and elitist people like myself consider to be boundaries of tastefulness, but it is the way that it so thoroughly and singularly explores this rarely traversed (from the “good” side of the divide at least) area that makes it a fascinating, and indeed personally troubling piece of music. Enjoying this album leads me to wonder what brings me to automatically dislike other, similar music so easily. Comparing this album to other items on my desk right now makes me wonder how narrow my taste really is. Trouble is really very beautiful just as it is distantly disturbing, and yet finding words to describe it leave me portraying music that I have an averse reaction to. Trouble is a perfectly titled piece of work then. You don’t get ambient music albums named Trouble, and what’s more they never cause any. This album however does indeed upset several apple carts simply because it goes where we don’t think it should be going, and it does so with a conviction a certainty, and a remarkable level of craftsmanship that makes us look back at ourselves as supposedly experienced listeners and question what we have been thinking all along. If Drumm’s intention was to cause trouble, to throw expectations to the wind, as he did with Sheer Hellish Miasma, then he has done so here with a fair degree of success.