Drunjus / Thuja
Drunjus / Pine Cone Temples
B+ / B-
rone sings the body without a body. Drone emits from the mouth of the non-human, the non-animal. Its duration aspires to the eternal, its volume dwarfs scuttling life, and its tone obliterates the instrument of its origin. Drone emerges from the very large and the very small, from the pulsating stars to subatomic vibrations. Drone hums at the edges, rarely in the center of our midrange world. But when it comes to the fore, it transfixes, because the drone is alien, and the alien is fascinating.
Thuja and Drunjus draw drones from nature. They are in a good position to do so—both bands are products of large musical collectives that keep their roots planted firmly in the soil. Thuja is the crown jewel of the Jewelled Antler kingdom, bringing together many of its stalwarts—Glenn Donaldson, Loren Chasse, Steven R. Smith, and Rob Reger—for improvisations drawing from and including the natural environment in which they record. Jewelled Antler’s been circulating through the musical underground for several years now, but The Davenport/Mudslide family is only beginning reap their deserved acclaim. Whereas Jewelled Antler has become a diffuse collection of like-minded folks stretching from California to Finland, the Davenport Family is tightly packed in Madison, WI. They too stay dirty, jam with the birds and wind, and release frustratingly limited edition CD-Rs, but one shouldn’t confuse them for Jewelled Antler imposters. Their music tends much more to the psychotic than bucolic, and their origins stretch just as far back as the Antlerians—to 1998 when spiritual leader Clay Ruby hooked up with Mansfield.
Drunjus is also something of a supergroup, combining the talents of Ruby and Dan Woodman. They traffic in pure drone of the swampy analog variety. They journey to the depths of the primordial muck to listen to the speaking world and translate it into a tongue we cannot understand.
Despite its intensity, Drunjus sounds strangely ethereal at times, like a phenomenon rather than a musical creation. Indeed many of the titles suggest immateriality—“Dream Piece,” “The Air Moans and Hums,” “Fantastic Glacial Heat”—encouraging the listener to de-emphasize the physical and focus on imagination and atmosphere. When one stops concentrating and lets the music flow, it fills the air with a strange non-presence. Drunjus plays the paradox of silence. “The Air Moans and Hums” brings to mind John Cage’s nervous system whine in the sensory deprivation chamber, only amplified and full-bodied. “Fantastic Glacial Heat” sweeps the wind off the ice and gathers it into an off-balance violin and synth dirge that both warms and freezes the frostbitten traveler. “Dream Piece 1” starts off all quasi-classical before growing into a Skaters-like power chant complete with ecstatic revelation. Here we find Drunjus drawing the invisible, screaming the inaudible, and giving face to the mystical.
To counterbalance their disorientating penchant for the unknown, Drunjus also provides some mud-stomping bo(n)g hits. “Soil and Star pt. 1” sinks into the stickiest bass while gnats swarm the mic, and “Thick Winds off the Sargasso” exchanges metaphor for the real thing, pairing summer insect noises and analog churning to create a humid soup. Despite its stubborn immobility, Drunjus flies through its two discs and eighty minutes. In fact, when the duo brings their tracks to an abrupt end (an annoying habit of theirs), one envies the performers who surely kept on playing after the stop button had been pressed.
While drone unifies Thuja and Drunjus, it would be wrong to classify Thuja’s Pine Cone Temples as a drone album. Certainly drones play a key role in anchoring their long-form compositions, but Thuja showcases far more instrumental dexterity than any drone release. But that doesn’t make Pine Cone Temples a blue grass jam. Thuja seeks harmony with nature, so their songs grow rather than develop, usually at a rate just a trice faster than plants. One must concentrate to follow a Thuja album, especially one that pushes 90 minutes, but the listener is well rewarded by a sweet, slow fruition.
Pine Cone Temples differs in structure from the rest of the group’s work. It documents not one moment or session, but every year since Thuja’s inception. Call it an odds and ends collection from a group whose oddity never ends. You gotta love the natural fractals at work—slow growth tracks mimicking the macroscopic growth of the band. One detects traces of the solo ventures of each member here—melodic fragments of the Donaldson’s Birdtree scattered like ancient pottery shards in the dirt, the harsher textures of Chasse’s Of, and the snaking Eastern Europe smoke trails from Smith’s Hala Strana. Unfortunately, due to the lack of documentation, one can’t tell if these tracks inspired those projects or were inspired by them.
After a brief, bumpy intro, Thuja settles nicely into the second untitled track on the first disc. As far as I can tell, the piece records the scuttling of animals preparing for a thunderstorm, the eventual abatement of that storm, and the return to normal chirp n’ scavenge life for the animals. A sixteen-minute workout in abstraction, but one that succeeds if the details—just the right string-scrape here and beautifully modulated drone there—are attended to. The following track provides more immediate gratification—fuzzy production complete with attendant noises and wind drapes a gauzy sheet over an elegiac piano. Shorter and more traditionally musical than its predecessor, the track appeases listeners put off at first.
The second disc splits 38 minutes into two tracks, both of which deserve the epic runtime. For the first, Thuja focuses heavily on the environment, leaving the piece just a step away from a field recording. However, the kling-klang percussion and occasional guitar notes compel one to think about the environment in musical terms as well. The proceedings are subtle and dignified until a full-fledged Hala Strana guitar line drops your jaw. The second track crackles like a campfire surrounded by whistling centaurs. A music box plays reluctantly to introduce a menacing drone that dominates the piece despite the protests of a scraped guitar.
In the course of the nearly three hours I spent with Drunjus and Thuja back to back, over and over, I became convinced that the two were a natural pair. Drunjus provides the swamp and the silence for the shy animals of Thuja to play in. If the two albums were played simultaneously, we’d hear the aural equivalent of binocular vision. Only then could we see clearly the world spawned by the two. Instead we’re left with a fuzzy inkling and the prod of imagination. Luckily, that’s not bad at all.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-08-26