The history of drone music does not arise from political strife. By nature, instrumental ambient music is conceptual rather than a form of declarative protest. But “stuff is too fucked up right now not to acknowledge”, says drone artist Evan Caminiti. Toxic City Music, his latest album on his own Dust Editions imprint, is the darkly ambient soundtrack of a ruinous election. But it also eloquently captures the more hellish aspects of living in New York City – a reflection of the gleaming decay that late-stage capitalism has brought here.
There’s a sense of detachment in Toxic City Music that contrasts with Caminiti’s earlier work, specifically the billowy drones of Barn Owl, his longtime collaboration with the avant-garde musician Jon Porras. Barn Owl’s music, and to an extent Caminiti’s 2015 Thrill Jockey release Meridian, processed tones so fully that notes were stretched into clouds. But Toxic City Music is not an attempt to conjure up a new atmosphere. It’s a raw, punishing look at the world we inhabit today, charred by late-capitalist greed and grimy human viscera. Barn Owl’s work “dealt in metaphors”, Caminiti explains, while this record is “ really a direct indictment of the world around me.”
He’s long been fascinated with the specific sounds of this New York. Coming from the Bay Area in 2014, Caminiti was immediately struck by the wash of noise: the ceaseless construction, the churning trains, someone sobbing on a public street corner. He took field recordings of these sounds with his iPhone, capturing the exhausted mumbles of the morning subway commute and a jackhammer across the street from his apartment. “I got it in my mind that they were testing the toxicity levels of the lot” where he lived, which heightened his concept of a pervasive, inescapable poison that infiltrates our concrete surroundings.
Back at the studio, he processed these recordings until they barely resembled their original source. He then composed eerie guitar drones over the top of the hushed voices and metallic drums. Having eschewed the guitar on Meridian in favor of his modular synth, Toxic City Music is a return to the instrument he says “I have the biggest vocabulary with.” The guitar work, especially on album standout “Irradiation Halo,” doesn’t feel organic either. An improvised guitar sketch was recorded to a cassette, then ran through a synthesizer, altering pitch and form. “It’s essentially devoid of melody”, Caminiti notes, “because I wanted to avoid the possibility that someone could relate it to something they’ve heard before.”
The sidewalk trash wasn’t the only inspiration he derived from the city. He also long idolized its music pioneers. ‘When I think of guitar music I immediately think of White Light/White Heat and Glenn Branca — lots of feedback and intensity.” Living in California, “I romanticized LaMonte Young’s loft shows from the 60s, and no-wave, which captures that grittiness I just love.” But despite Branca’s early collaborations with Sonic Youth and Suicide, drone music isn’t traditionally politicized in the same way as punk. Being so heady (and occasionally self-indulgent), it’s not a natural fit for broaching the acute crises that unsettle Caminiti — “the water crisis in Flint, the escalation of police violence, and feeling so desperate and helpless with all this shit going on.” Caminiti adds that music like his, without vocals, is difficult to parse without it being subject to the listener’s own projections, a problem he remedied by being concrete with the album’s song titles. Calling tracks things like “Toxic Tape” and “Acid Shadow” were penned to signal to the listener that the compositions were born of hopelessness and frustration.
Toxic City Music, for all its cerebral ambience, is also a highly listenable record. It never fades into the walls, and it is always present and dynamic, with small moments of sparkling beauty in its active anguish. Although this record was written during the 2016 primaries, no one had any idea just how much more viperous the general election would become. “It almost seems frivolous now because things are so much worse!”, Caminiti says. But that’s exactly what makes Toxic City Music so potent: that despair has only grown in the intervening months, and listening to its bleak clangs echoes the hard heartbeats that result from watching the news.
Evan Caminiti performs tonight at Commend on the Lower East Side.