If innovation was the defining criterion of how to judge music, drone would long ago have been confined to the footnote of sonic history. After all, aside from a few surprises here and there, mostly involving a bit of genre-splicing, drone’s archetypes are now so firmly entrenched that instant familiarity is generally par for the course when discovering a new drone album. Yet, because of the very nature of the beast, this does not throw up nearly as many barriers to enjoyment as is the case with, say, rock music, where a lack of new directions has increasingly led to a certain staleness. The sounds Richmond, Virginia-based trio Cristal meticulously create on this reissue of 2010’s Homegoing may flow from a musical well that stretches back to Klaus Schulze or Arvo Pärt, but the results are so beautiful that it would take a heart made of stone to remain unmoved.
Cristal achieve this level of potency by constantly balancing the atmospheres on the album on a fragile level of repressed tension. Where a lot of modern drone and ambient music – and even modern composition – is guided by musicians who seem content to allow their creations to drift almost benevolently, or linger churlishly under a fog of melancholia, the nine pieces onHomegoing, only one of which passes the ten-minute mark (another break of sorts from drone tradition), are tugged in conflicting directions, broiling with an inchoate mixture of emotional strains. The title of the album serves as a pointer for this ambiguity: we all know what a homecoming is, the sense of positivity evoked by the term is palpable. If this album had been named Homecoming, it would have surely made for a warm, positive work. Homegoing, however, suggests an unfinished journey, an exile that someone is desperately trying to bring to a close. This intensity ensures that Homegoing never uses focus or drive, even at its most ambient, reflective moments.
The album opens with ‘Yoke’, which immediately sets the mood via reverbed cello drones (played by guest Taylor Burton) that provide a solemn, organic carpet underneath the elaborate electronic textures of core members Jimmy Anthony, Greg Darden and Bobby Donne. The pace is glacial, but never soporific: listening with headphones, one starts to pick out details and shifts that, if I’m honest, may not even be there. The cello scrapes and moans bring a sombre texture to ‘Yoke’, akin to the dark ambient moroseness of a Lustmord or William Fowler Collins, but, again, as the piece gradually unfolds and reveals hidden layers, it’s as if beams of light are being allowed to pierce the murk, a subtle and ultimately elegant toying with the boundaries of emotion, melody and atmosphere. Across the entirety of Homegoing, the group expand upon each sound they generate, from fitful, noisy (‘Mirror’) drones to icy synth patterns (the title track) to haunted ambience (‘Dead Bird’), before gently edging almost imperceptibly into new sonic realms by bringing this heady mix together. Such is their masterful grip on proceedings that, for all the album’s underlying bleakness, there are several moments where the sounds are downright lush, like some subtly grandiose William Blake painting where dark imagery somehow imparts a sense of intense beauty.
I am generally loath to use the term “psychogeography” when it comes to music, because it seems to be a lazy shorthand for “quite moody instrumental stuff”, but I have to admit that there’s a reason why drone and ambient music crop up so frequently on film soundtracks when a director wants to score footage of vast, bleak landscapes. The slow pace of Homegoing, notably on the listless title track, with its near-inert electronic drones, means it doesn’t take much to feel imbibed with a sense of space, even emptiness. Listening to the album on a ferry crossing Stockholm harbour, and then wandering through the enormous forest in the city’s centre called Djurgården (seriously, it’s like having Epping Forest instead of Islington in London), the sounds, be they sad, ominous or wistful, took on extra resonance, chiming with the austere beauty of the surroundings.
Cristal make drone music that is pungent with emotion and feeling, in a way matched by few beyond masters like Windy & Carl, William Basinski or Richard Skelton, and which is perhaps more subtly resonant than any of those. I feel I should mention that one of them is an erstwhile member of Labradford, but it honestly doesn’t mean a thing. Homegoing is a colossal work of majesty in its own right, and one of the best melodic drone albums I’ve heard in ages.