When the first tone of Breaking Day’s opening track, ‘Rogues’, emerges from the speakers, all static crackle and untethered white noise, I was thinking “Here we go again, another drone album that sounds exactly like nearly every other one released in the last five years”. Don’t get me wrong, I love drone with an unparalleled passion. It’s just that the advent of computers and sequencers, and the unrelenting desire of many a new act to “revolutionise” the genre in predictable ways, seems to have taken away a lot of the mystique and sense of exploration that made pioneers like Cluster and Klaus Schulze so exciting, their meticulous and slowly-unfolding piling up of tones and textures increasingly a thing of the past. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old git, but as more and more records come out inundated in drab synth drones, I’m left to constantly turn to mavericks like Eleh and Keith Fullerton Whitman, the harsh noise walls scene, and solid old-timers like Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad and Eliane Radigue if I want to get some good quality deep drone to lather my ears with.
But Cleared are made of more unusual stuff than most of their peers, and my initial reservation was wholly unfair. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge an album on its first few bars. You’d think I’d have learnt that by now… Indeed, to call Breaking Day a drone album at all is to slightly misappropriate its varied and shifting musical palette. ‘Rogues’ is a case in point: as the white noise falters and drops in and out of the mix, a delicate pattering of cymbals and high-hat snakes forwards, soon bolstered by disjointed drum beats and sudden surges of screeching digital noise. Cleared’s sound is quite removed from the sunshine-y synth washes of many of their contemporaries, pitched instead on “Rogues” somewhere between uneasy trip-hop and the industrial clanging of Cabaret Voltaire’s Mix-Up album. Electronics gone beautifully wrong, shall we say.
A first look at Breaking Day’s artwork, added to its cheerful title, could have underlined my initial reticence, given it depicts a window looking out on a sunny garden. But as the music unfolds, from the near-metal rumble of ‘Sighted’ to the title track’s factory-floor take on Pocahaunted-esque dub pop, with a saw-toothed guitar slicing and swirling over reverbed polyrhythms, it’s clear that the album’s imagery rests in the foreground of the cover: dark shadows and oppressive interiors. At times I’m reminded of Brian Pyle’s Ensemble Economique project, minus the latter’s shamanistic approach to avant-pop. ‘No Path to Claim’, for example, builds up dense atmospherics using found sounds and chiming bells, coming on like a more stripped-down cousin of Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg’s KTL. ‘Quartz’, on the other hand, is almost minimalist: a ghostly organ drone that anchors Cleared back into the drone tradition mentioned above, and with some gusto.
Such boundary-pushing of course entails a risk that the resultant whole could become undermined by disjointed parts. Added to this, many of the tracks are rather short, failing to build on their creepy atmospheres. But Cleared have managed to steer clear of the kind of clichés and simplistic faux-experimentation that dogs so much of modern drone, instead toying with the boundaries of several genres, emphasising tones and atmospherics over simplistic synth noodling and looking back beyond the archetypes of drone into recesses that at times have been overlooked by similar acts. Breaking Day also takes it cues from the duo’s live shows, and in that context the power of these tracks would be indisputable, in the manner of Raime or Demdike Stare. Breaking Day may not be a defining new chapter in the history of drone or dark ambient, but it’s a deceptively challenging addition to the canon, and certainly looks at its diverse influences in smart and adventurous ways.
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