One by Small Life Form (Review)

On One, Brian John Mitchell explores drone to its fullest, bathing the listener in huge swaths of pure sonic drifts and tides.
One - Small Life Form

For the life of me, I can’t really explain my attraction to drone-based “music.” It’s not so much an academic appreciation of the stuff (although that’s part of it) as it is an innate, natural fascination that’s been with me, well, always. Even as a child, I found myself fascinated by the droney ambience of empty rooms. I’d become fixated on the faint hum of the house’s heating and cooling systems, intrigued by the way that extraneous sounds (outside noises, sounds of people in other rooms, the creaks of the house itself, etc.) filtered in and incorporated themselves into the sonic backdrop.

I’ve always enjoyed walking through backalleys, behind the offices and stores, where all of the huge fans, heating units, and power supplies sit, and listening to the huge roars and electrical crackles. You can almost feel the sound manifesting itself in the air, the entire area vibrating with some unseen energy. And during the summer months, while living in places with less than adequate cooling, the drone of the window fan was often the last thing I heard before drifting off to sleep.

Somehow, I get the sense that Small Life Form’s Brian John Mitchell (Remora, Silber Records head honcho) comes from a similar perspective. On One, he explores drone to its fullest, bathing the listener in huge swaths of pure sonic drifts and tides. For the most part, it’s not particularly pretty, or even all that emotionally involving (for that sort of drone, look to Aarktica’s No Solace In Sleep). But what it is is impactful. You can literally feel the drones washing over you, painting your room in pure sound, and setting your entire body to vibrate as the sounds collide through you.

While many drone albums start with guitars, Mitchell eschews that approach, leaving that for his Remora project. Instead, as the song titles might suggest, Mitchell takes the sounds of cymbals, horns, and organs, and proceeds to sculpt and stretch them to the breaking point until they cease resembling their original form almost entirely. “Horns” is a perfect example of this. Here, the listener is plopped right down in the middle of a beehive caught in slow motion, as huge, repetitive buzzing sounds shift and float all around and threaten to crush you. And on the album’s opener, “Small,” Mitchell manipulates his voice into something much bigger and deeper, as if you suddenly stumbled across a canyon of several hundred monks chanting in an alien wilderness.

Is it harsh and grating? Oftentimes, it is. And yet the sounds, as blunt and oppressive as they might be, have a way of battering your feeble defenses until you eventually surrender and become completely enveloped by them — as is the case with the monolithic, carved-from-alien-ice tones on “Organ.” At the same time, they can be very hypnotic, lulling you into a trance that’s quite pervasive and shocking when broken. In fact, as I typed that last sentence, my roommate came home. The noise of the door opening and his footsteps on the wooden floor broke the mood so suddenly and so completely that I literally jumped in my chair — and I still have some shivers from the experience.

Those who find drone boring and monotonous are going to hate One with a passion, and to be honest, I’ve even found it rather tedious at times. I’ve listened to One several times before, and it’s just never clicked. However, I pulled it from the “To Be Reviewed” pile on a whim tonight and decided to give it another listen. If nothing else, I thought, it might make for some nice background music while working on some other project. But for some reason, on this particular listen, it clicked and everything seemed to fall into place — much like my experience with Supersilent’s 6 (another release I found quite impenetrable at first).

Call it sudden enlightenment, a moment of clarity, whatever. But it just worked, and I don’t know if I’ll have that experience again. It could very well be that all subsequent listens might prove as tedious as my first forays into the disc — which makes me want to savor this experience all the more.

Read more reviews of Small Life Form.