Author: Bloodshot Grub
Artist: Hope Drone
Album: Cloak of Ash
Label: Relapse Records
The name Hope Drone may sound like Deafheaven by way of Sunn O))), but what we have instead is yet another atmospheric black metal album. If I sound less than enthusiastic, it’s because that is an accurate reflection of my feelings towards the subgenre at the moment. It seems a new one crosses my radar every few days, and atmospheric music is not something I see as being especially surplus tolerant, especially not late in the summer when the monsoon has passed and the skies are clear and bright every day. And with almost 80 minutes of atmospheric black metal ahead of me on this release, I was expecting something of an ordeal, but Hope Drone won me over.
Their particular approach draws primarily from Wolves in the Throne room, but also incorporates some elements of atmospheric sludge metal that bring them more in line with Vattnet Viskar. They’re not aiming for innovation, but they do have a clear intention that goes beyond the typical atmospheric black metal approach. Hope Drone takes the post-rock influence from Wolves in the Throne Room and pushes it further, aiming for dense, droning, hypnotic textures that develop very gradually over the course of several minutes.
Since texture is the primary concern here, sound design plays an important role, and they nailed it on that front. Everything comes out as a warm, all-encompassing roar. Everything sounds larger than life and saturated with natural distortion, and not because the mastering engineer pushed the entire thing into the red (which usually accomplishes exactly the opposite effect). The guitars have an especially throaty quality that I enjoy. It’s worth noting that, while the dynamics on this album are overall fairly good, this is an album that would have hugely benefited from having a really wide dynamic range, something to emphasize the contrasts between sections and give the whole thing a bit more shape.
It’s not an especially easy listen, though. The content is constantly good, but it’s difficult to stay focused over such long spans. And there’s also a lot of “good” to sift through to get to some really great music, of which there is still quite a bit. Much like Shape of Despair‘s Monotony Fields from earlier this year, this is an album that can be more easily approached by digesting it in chunks. Unlike Shape of Despair, sitting down to listen to the entire thing in one sitting is a challenging but rewarding experience.
I dug into “The Chords that Thrum Beneath the Earth” to get a better sense of what Hope Drone has going on under the hood. Even having already listened to this album three times in full, plus a few individual songs, and written most of this review, I was still surprised at how little they actually do and how much they manage to accomplish with such rudimentary material. The song opens with a very simple chord progression (C5 – C+5* – Fm/C) based on moving a melody note over a C pedal tone (a pedal tone being a repeated note or drone played under a chord progression), and the entire ten minutes and thirty seconds of the song is developed on top of that. There are some melodic variations and subtle changes to the harmony, and a few very brief interludes that feature alternate material, but once the tremolo and blast beats come in just before the 3 minute mark, it’s not until 7:35 that the texture shifts to big open chords and slower strumming, and even then the overall harmonic pattern continues unabated. It feels repetitious, but not monotonous. Subtle, organic tempo variations, along with a dynamic and organic drum performance and haunting vocals, build energy throughout.
At the same time, those melodic and harmonic ideas come right from Wolves in the Throne Room. They’re still able to put a tremendous amount of energy behind it and excel at turning those ideas into a roaring, hypnotic maelstrom, but I have to wonder what they would sound like if they branched out a little more. Even so, this is one of the better atmospheric black metal albums I’ve come across this year, and is recommended to fans of the sludgier side of the genre especially, so long as said fans have a high tolerance for repetition.
* For theory nerds: the C+5 is something I’ve seen a lot in modern American black metal, resulting from taking a power chord and moving the fifth up a half step. While it’s technically a major chord with no fifth in first inversion (A♭/C in this case), the fact that the third is in the bass, and held over from the previous chord, and often doubled (in the case of full octave power chords), makes that note sound as the root. And given that the chord tends to function in the context of and as a contrast to surrounding power chords, I think of the resulting interval as being an augmented fifth rather than a minor sixth, and I refer to it accordingly as an augmented power chord.
- Bloodshot Grub