I'm standing in the Polish Combatants' Hall in Toronto watching four people stand at the cardinal directions around a glowing cylinder spinning circles on a turntable. The witchy girls who made the installation art and who look like characters from The Craft have disappeared. Eventually, everyone from the light-gazers to the curiously mixed audience milling about the room to the collection of musicians on stage—either soundchecking, jamming, or performing practiced compositions, who can say?—is enveloped by a fog machine with a zealous operator. It's late on National Drone Day and I can't tell where the sound ends and the slow-moving rainbow mirk begins.
Last spring, Canada celebrated the first National Drone Day, a brand new concept that even European experimental-heads have to bow down to in respect. This year the holiday honouring music's most underappreciated, slow moving minimalist genre returned on a larger scale, with events in all provinces and territories (territories!) and locales including Yellowknife, Winnipeg, Sudbury, Cape Breton, and yes, even several cities in Alberta.
Marie LeBlanc Flanagan of music blog and distro Weird Canada launched the (still unofficial—hey Stephen Harper, aren't you adrone enthusiast?) holiday in 2014, frustrated by something most of us have forgotten our angst about in the age of (amazing) "25 Cats Who Just Can't Believe It's Christmas" listicles: the empty consumerism inherent to Canada's traditional annual celebrations.
Drone Day aims to "celebrate a moment, to stake out a moment in the passage of our lives and give it meaning," which is perhaps a nice way of saying, "let the freaks have their day." The holiday is a chance for non-commercial and fringe musicians across Canada to connect on a national stage, even if that stage is more or less an Instagram tag.
In 2014 Toronto was home to three Drone Day events, including a set by Egyptrixx. This year, even with some false starts (a massive secret outdoor show got stamped out due to paranoia about the fuzz or something), Toronto again put together by far the biggest lineup: five shows between 1 PM and 1 AM at venues including a DIY art space, a Polish legion, a record shop, and a guerrilla street corner set-up. I went to all of them in search of the true meaning of drone. And possibly a spine realignment.
I started celebrating on Saturday in true #dronelife spirit: hunched over alone in my apartment, finishing and uploading a 25 minute drone track that almost no one will ever listen to, the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack as it would be heard in or at a swimming pool. (For what it's worth, I DJ the only drone show on Toronto internet radio station TRP. It's pretty funny.)
Toronto's afternoon programming at DIY venue Ratio was put together by The AMBIENT PING. If you run in any avant circles, you know the type: old guard experimenters who start their shows on time and will never for the life of them figure out how to make a proper flyer in Photoshop. The venue had floor pillows, though, so I started my public droning there with an hour of duo dreamSTATE (overtly sincere titles abound in this scene).
The set was a mix of soothing space sounds and bubbling, reverb-laden video game effects—sometimes drone is a rocket lift-off on psychedelics launching from a field of daisies hidden in a crevasse on a haunted mountain; sometimes drone is a vision into the combination of bad taste and ample free time. As the 60-minute set wavered between the two, I attempted to get more inside my body: stretching out my legs and thinking disparaging thoughts about my posture as supported by various medical and therapeutic professionals. I wondered if, like EDM rave workouts, live drone yoga is a thing.
As the two men on stage pedal-gazed in front of live projections on a sheet that completely obliterated the gorgeous afternoon sun, my unmeditative thoughts echoed complaints about the previous year's Drone Day—namely, brones, a.k.a. bro-nes, a.k.a. producers of beardgaze, the largely male chin stroking subset of drone that threatens the genre's potential from within (brones cannot gaze past their beards to their navels; even if brones don't have beards, they're stroking something). In the audience at Ratio, women were easily outnumbered 5-1.
Brones mean well, but coat their attempts at building cultural meaning with a sickly earnestness that reeks of long hours logged in solitary basements surrounded by too much gear and supported, I would assume, by message boards based in similar troll caverns. An artist with a tenacious ego can work, especially if they have a shade of self awareness, but it fails when the music sounds this ridiculous. Drone Day's appeal is as much as a comedic concept as a counter-cultural milestone, but here I mostly had to amuse myself. Female vocal samples rose in the mix and I fantasized that Married in Berdichev was to follow.
One early-day positive: mid-set, I resolved to pursue regular meditation as path through which to achieve a straighter spine. It was a Drone Day breakthrough. I later learned a friend had had the same line of thinking.
Back in the sunshine, my holiday picked up. At record shop LP's LP for the IRL incarnation of Drone Day's funniest Facebook invite—"If you'd like to contribute to the drone, please bring your refrigerator"—where Melissa J (Processor) and Jess Forrest (Castle If) were droning together for six hours.
The duo at the pedals, synths, and cash register controlled a sound that built and changed so slowly it was just perceptible enough to captivate—in this setting, anyway. As they sold records and chatted together, the event demonstrated how environmental drone can be. In the sunlit shop, the layered sound was allowed to drift unobtrusively, highlighting the craft as an underrated art form. I stayed longer than I'd intended, browsing rare vinyl I couldn't afford, charmed by the beauty of the music.
Outside the U of T Bookstore, Toronto's only guerrilla Drone Day event was just as gorgeous: a man droning on drums while yelling and moaning, challenging the widely held convention within the genre that percussion must be avoided much as globe-spanning legends Magical Unicellular Music do, while passers-by snapped Instagrams and climbed trees, inspired by solo weirdo klnr's free-spirited DIY approach and the silliness of his BDSM inspired mouth-gag microphone. Droners lounged on the pavement or in the grass. I felt free. This was my Drone Day: a black clad tribute to the ridiculous. Afterward, showing no interest in any evening event, klnr packed his gear onto a bike trailer and pedaled home.
Drone Day evening was a blur of fog, beard-themed (!) and seizure-inducing art installations, and hours of solo and group broning (at one point at the Polish Combatants' Hall—where, thankfully, women were not only in attendance, but involved in the art exhibits—I did see a woman playing a wind instrument on stage, but I never said women couldn't brone).
These psychedelic visual installations at the Combatants' Hall supplemented the standard live gear-gaze + projections formula most drone shows rely heavily on. I'd guess it's like this: mainstream exposure to drone music is limited to haunting movie montages and documentaries about outer space. Thus, to make drone more palatable, musicians come armed with ready-made or live projections. But I'm suspicious of this drive to make the genre familiar and consumable.
Born of organic audial matter rather than imposed structure, drone is an environmental form of music: it soaks up the atmosphere rather than creating one. It pulls us toward what we are; it is both the shroud and the shroud lifting. What I didn't find in Toronto was a collective search for what drone, or a noncommercial, outsider art holiday, could achieve.
Three-fifths of the shows featured rhythmless music rigidly followed traditional live-show organizational structures—(a gig with a giant, glowing, bearded head is still a gig). All shows were PWYC or free, but LeBlanc Flanagan's concept was not a stand on art economics but a question of what we want to be: an exploration of the beauty and ridiculousness of nature. There's almost nothing funnier than a holiday called "Drone Day," and that's why I love it.
I ended the night in the Tranzac's tiny street-facing bar, where music from the nostalgic indie party in the main hall thudded like the pulse of the status quo through the walls as live projections of gelatinous liquid moved slowly on screen. I thought about the universe: its mysterious humour; how strange we are.
In the pause following the final applause, someone began singing along to a track the DJ was pumping next door, inciting the first laughter I'd heard all Drone Day. "Thank you for listening to our sculptures," smiled the MC in a way that I could almost allow myself, delirious with BPM-less sound as I was, to believe was tongue in cheek. "Happy Drone Day." As I stumbled home some drunk kids on College Street asked me if I wanted to join a slapping circle, and I was too spaced out to flaunt my jagged aluminum knuckle ring at them and say "always." Either peace or exhaustion was on my side.
Even my weirdest pals were alarmed by my stoic commitment to Drone Day, but like Agent Mulder, ever attuned to the organic, free wielding rumblings of space, I want to believe. The day would have turned many into quivering wrecks with perpetual swimmer's ear, but I've done my time touring with ambient noise projects and listening to every Natural Snow Buildingsrelease (kidding, no one has, but I try). The day, though predictably marred by brones, passed well and easily.
On Drone Day I got to split a slice of pizza with my favourite lo-fi throat singing metal vocalist, Doom Tickler, and even prolific Inyrdisk Records recluse Kevin Hainey left the house to celebrate. The Instagram tag will attest that Drone Day is bringing Canada's underground weirdos together in brave new ways, beigey beardgazers and reckless dreamers alike. May it, like the mysteries of the universe, live on endlessly to tease us with the wonders of oblivion. (PS, I'm so fucking jealous of Winnipeg's Drone Day gig. Fuck you, Winnipeg.)
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