Maze of Zen: Author & Heavy Metal Academic Owen Coggins’ 8 Tracks for Metal Meditation

Show of horns: Who wants to transcend the material plane this afternoon?

Well, to all those with their digits in the air — you’re in luck! Today Dr. Owen Coggins — an Honorary Associate at The Open University and author of the incisive, edifying, endlessly fascinating book Mysticism, Ritual, and Religion in Drone Metal — graciously agrees to provide us eight tracks for droning metal meditation.

So, dump that corporeal bullshit, smash that buy button — seriously, with chapter titles like “Methods to Cross the Abyss: Ritual, Violence, and Noise” and “Amplifier Worship: Materiality and Mysticism in Heavy Sound” how could you go wrong? — and take that ride.

Just don’t expect to be the same afterwards.

“The aspects of drone metal that seem to occasion profound responses from listeners seem to be those which stage an encounter with unknowable strangeness and mystery,” Coggins writes in Mysticism, Ritual, and Religion in Drone Metal. “In private listening, this is instantiated by performing certain separations and preparations of time, space and the body, such as ensuring no distractions, setting light levels, arranging furniture comfortably and imbibing substances from cups of tea to absinthe. At live performances, extreme volume and extension produces otherness and radical estrangement from ordinary life, language and even thought in drone metal designed and expected to be experienced and also, specifically, not to be understood. These aspects give rise to understandings of drone metal performance as ritual, made particularly meaningful as a result of its mystery and strangeness, its resistance to categorization within established structures for understanding and description.”

Earth ‘Ouroboros is Broken’ Extra Capsular Extraction (1991)

Where it all starts. While countless bands and fans will rightly point to Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version as the legendary first drone metal album, the clue is in the name that it wasn’t the band’s first release. The template was already in place on that record, an EP from 1991 decorated with lists of tools and drugs from eye surgery catalogues and weird visionary sentence fragments (in fact including some of the song titles that would appear on the following album). The track features a fearsomely whacked-out chugging riff, leaden with layers of distortion, snaking around like the world-serpent referenced in the title. It starts slow, low and doomy, then smashes through the low-speed barrier to churn on for more than eighteen minutes of heady sludge. Earth has gone through line-up changes (with guitarist Dylan Carlson the only constant), a lengthy hiatus, drugs and illness, style changes to a cleaner reverb sound and back to distortion, and this track still eternally returns in live sets to this day.

Boris ‘Absolutego’ Absolutego: Special Low Frequency Version (1996)

While the Tokyo band have shapeshifted through many a hard rock subgenre since, their first record is a monster of drone doom metal. Subtitled ‘Special Low Frequency Version’ in homage to Earth 2, Dylan Carlson returned the compliment by describing the record as sounding like slugs fucking. Not to be confused with the deliberately-confusing 2017 track of the same name, this is the 65-minute stumbling, growling, endless epic. From the start, tube amps glow malevolently, distortion is strung out across vast swathes of time, and the eventual riff drops are on a geological scale. While Amplifier Worship was the name they gave to the follow-up album, that ideology was clearly already in place here.

Om ‘Cremation Ghat I’ God is Good (2009)

Not all drone metal bands or listeners make explicit links to ideas about mysticism and ritual, but Om are probably one of the most distinctive bands in terms of their depiction of religion, with the record sleeve and title for this album being a clear example. Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius were already heading out into the desert in the last days of Sleep, with the stoner pilgrimage of Jerusalem/Dopesmoker, and formed Om to explore an even more austere and esoteric sonic path. Emil Amos having switched with Hakius on the drum stool, this is a fair bit faster and less distorted than what you might imagine standard drone metal to be. But the emphasis on heavy, cyclical bass and chantings about arcane elements of religion in the lyrics situates this as a key touchstone for drone metal mystics. And in fact this links to the roots of dub, another marginal, mystical tradition of music that meditates deeply on spirituality in bass vibrations.

Bong ‘Dreams of Mana-Yood-Sushai’ Mana-Yood-Sushai (2012)

In the research for the book I asked listeners to describe listening to drone metal and I got some amazing responses that really pushed language to the limit or suggested the weird mental and physical effects of metal this extreme: ‘it was like rusty needles of time would be taken from my eyes’ and ‘Listening to Mana-Yood-Sushai makes me wish I was a tree.’ While I’m obsessive about listening to Bong’s grittier, sprawling live sets on tape, this Greg Chandler-produced album is an accessible yet uncompromising masterpiece. A luminous Nicolas Roerich painting graces the cover, together with a ufo-holy-mountain band logo. The name repeatedly intoned under the pulsating droning riff is of the fictional sleeping creator god in the fantastical world of author Lord Dunsany, and the music is otherworldly indeed.

SunnO))) ‘Cannon’ D

Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s band has become by far the best-known of drone metal projects with their innovative cast of collaborators, their robes and fog machines, and their ambitious experimentalism that’s still always rooted in heavily distorted masses of sound. Lots of listeners I interviewed stressed the radical difference between listening to drone metal on record and at live concerts, and no more so than for this band- so I’ve picked an in-between example from their brilliant live album Dømkirke recorded in a Norwegian cathedral. The lack of a CD release for this also speaks to the strength of the vinyl fetish in the subgenre, with fans often speaking of that particular medium being valued for its ritual-like qualities. In this track, frequent vocalist Attila Csihar is at his imperious best, the organs draw lines of connection back to a medieval kind of mystical dirge, and you can practically smell the smoke and incense in the shadowy clouds of distortion.

Ommadon ‘V1’ (2014).

As austere as the title, this is just a massive track from the now sadly disbanded Glasgow duo. The sound they made with just guitar and drums/electronics was unbelievable. All of their stuff is great but this release was a real high-point, a double album where there’s a single track on each whole record. The scale of it is crazy, a track that sprawls past three quarters of an hour but the tension is kept throughout. Alongside Bismuth, also from the UK, brilliant extreme drone metal that amid the amp stacks and distortion, keeps it all founded on the ginormous riff.
Monarch! ‘Black Becomes the Sun’ Omens (2012)

This French band add floaty vocals and horrific roars to their oceanic riffs, both courtesy of Emilie Bresson. A strain of drone metal that shows more of an influence from hardcore (see also: Corrupted’s hour long songs like the imperious El Mundo Frio), as amusingly shown on their split with Elysium: the grindcore band contributed four songs clocking in at under 6 minutes in total; Monarch’s single track ‘Amplifire Death March’ is nearly an hour. The visual aesthetic is part kids drawing, part sailor tattoo, but with an undertow element of real menace. Their fierce, candle-adorned live performances are essential.

Menace Ruine ‘Set Water to Flames’ Alight in Ashes (2012)

This Quebecois duo take influence from neofolk and harsh noise but their sound is completely, utterly unique, like a satanic hurdy-gurdy spewing occult noise. The intonation and cadences of the vocals are strange but bewitching, with lyrics and artwork hinting at a real immersion in esoteric and alchemical themes. Melodies are haunting and soul-piercing, always over relentless hissing, crackling drone repetitions, providing a corrosive, transcendent sonic aura, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.

Dr. Coggins will present a talk about the book with a listening session at Merton Arts Space in London on October 24. He is also a trustee of record label and registered charity Oaken Palace, releasing drone records to raise money for endangered species.

Interested in digging deeper? Check out this great interview over at The Religious Studies Project.