Blakkr Nið – Drones, Dirges, and Dark Ambient Sounds

Bands like Earth, Boris, Sunn O))), Corrupted and Nadja have all used low frequencies and overdriven instrumentation on uber-slow songs to bring drone front and centre for a metal audience. However, as a form of musical expression, drone existed for aeons before any of those bands arrived. Drone is there in the core vibrations of mystical and mantric songs from across all cultures, and all ages, but no matter its place in history, or the form it has taken, drone has always used the physicality of sound to unlock the depths of consciousness. That’s made for some aptly mind-expanding and/or transcendental music over the years, but in the world of drone, what works and what doesn’t is entirely down to how it affects you personally.

With that in mind, welcome to the world of Blakkr Nið. The Canadian drone outfit, founded by Peter McNestry, offers you a choice of experiences when it comes to drone. The band has reverb-heavy songs oriented towards the metal end of the spectrum, but if that doesn’t work for you, then there’s a whole other side of Blakkr Nið favouring ambient minimalism to explore. Blakkr Nið has half a dozen releases available on Bandcamp, all of them displaying plenty of experimentalism, and every one of them featuring slow-motion, creeping tracks. As mentioned, you’ll find weighty drones on some of those tracks, but it’s not the tonnage of Blakkr Nið’s recordings that make a case for the band’s allure. It’s really those different sides of the band’s personality that ensure the band is interesting, because they present you with two distinct options in appreciating Blakkr Nið. So, let’s dig in to the band’s oeuvre, and see what approach works best of all.

Blakkr Nið’s latest Bandcamp addition, And Light Shone From His Eyes, is comprised of three songs that have more to do with Earth’s second coming (circa Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method) than any of the organ-liquefying drone that Earth’s original student, Sunn O))), has released. The tracks off And Light Shone From His Eyes, “Blakkr Nið -The Oracle,” “Walking in the Desert,” and “Death in the Mojave,” retain drone’s minimalist imprint and pace, but And Light Shone From His Eyes is all Cormac McCarthy vistas, and camp fires under the stars. Lo-fi country shuffles, with droning harp and jangling guitars, tumble over dusty terrain on And Light Shone From His Eyes, and Blakkr Nið work with that ever present feel of stripped down sound to build something evocative and picturesque. With only three songs, And Light Shone From His Eyes provides a brief glimpse of the scenery, but it’s an interesting venture, sketching out ideas that are very different to the rest of Blakkr Nið’s work.

If you’re looking for something a little harder and heavier, then the next release on Blakkr Nið’s Bandcamp page, Holy Hellfire, starts with glacial movements of feedback on “Rise of the Puritans.” There you’ll find the deathly black drone; with waves of synth (or it might well be organ) working in the depths of the mix. “Rise of the Puritans” is red-raw and ugly, as is follow up track, “Plague of Rats” – which features a fantastic blown out riff to hang on to up front. However, it’s Holy Hellfire’s final track, “Walk of Death,” which features collaborators King Brude and Newgrange, that uses tone, texture, synth, effects, and layered instrumentation to bring a sense of elegant and refined minimalism.  Each song on Holy Hellfire is as different as the next, but it’s really the more ethereal drift of “Walk of Death” that hits the mark best.

Certainly, if I was playing favourites, it’s Blakkr Nið’s more temperate drones that I prefer. They bring all the dramatic unease with waves of instrumentation, and Blakkr Nið’s War Time release is a superb example of that.

War Time maintains a chilling feel throughout its three tracks, much like the ice-cold mood that permeates Thomas Köner’s discography. War Time has that same cinematic feel, with its trilogy of tracks melding washed-out frequencies and gelid electronics for a release that is as sublime as it is forbidding. “Chernobyl, one of Blakkr Nið’s best songs yet, brings the feel of menace and harsh environments, but while it’s an undoubtedly desolate track, it never feels inhospitable or uninviting. Frequent collaborator Newgrange (Irish dark ambient artist Michael Molloy) turns up on War Time’s last track, “Reactor Bay,” which also provides a haunting example of how barely-there diaphanous drone infused with microtonal shifts can bring a beautifully bittersweet ambience.

Blakkr Nið and Newgrange also worked together on their The Doppler Effect co-release (also available on Blakkr Nið’s Bandcamp page). As they displayed on War Time, it’s the sense of space in the music that Blakkr Nið and Newgrange create that reveals their sage ability to make maximum use of minimalist shifts in sound. Newgrange’s self-titled album, released earlier this year, is also available on Bandcamp, and is well worth tracking down too. However, on The Doppler Effect, every song slowly unfurls, bringing melancholy and mesmerism in equal measure. If you’re wondering what Blakkr Nið releases to check out first, then I’d highly recommend that War Time and The Doppler Effect are your first ports of call, but that’s not to say Blakkr Nið’s other releases are unworthy of your time.

There’s much the same moving mix of darkness and light on Blakkr Nið’s Black Sonar EP (a collaboration with melancholic Canadian artist, King Brude). Black Sonar’s three tracks tap into a vein where euphoric waves of drone ebb and flow ever within a coldwave climate – with “Andromeda” being a pathos-heavy glimpse into the far reaches of the cosmos. However, if gentler ambient journeys don’t appeal, then there’s feedbacking drones aplenty on Blakkr Nið’s When the Night Took Us Away. That release brings roiling drones and distortion trampling ultra-minimalism. The other five tracks on When the Night Took Us Away are bone-rattling and exceedingly raw, so if it’s overdriven molten chords and abrasive production you’re after, then When the Night Took Us Away is the complete opposite of Blakkr Nið’s more ambient tunes.

In all, Blakkr Nið presents a range of musical alternatives. You can, if you wish, dig into cruder crushing guitars. Or, you can take the other route, and enjoy the beauty of Blakkr Nið’s more ambient strolls. Personally, although I’m a huge fan of monolithic dirges, I much prefer Blakkr Nið’s subtler songs. Releases like War Time and The Doppler Effect show more compositional nuance and depth, and while it’s always enjoyable to get battered by feedback and distortion, it’s Blakkr Nið’s more subtle tracks that worm their way under the skin, rather than batter down the hatches, that are more effective.

If there was any criticism about Blakkr Nið’s releases worth noting, it’s that they cover a lot of ground. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with any artist exploring whatever influences they choose, and if you sit And Light Shone From His Eyes, War Time, and When the Night Took Us Away alongside each other, it’s more than apparent that they’re all very different releases in tone, timbre, and texture. That’s not a unique situation for any experimental artist, but exploring a wide range of inspirations also risks spreading yourself a little too thin on occasion, and some of Blakkr Nið’s ideas are more fully fleshed out, and thus more appealing, than others.

Still, like all drone, what works for me might not appeal to you at all. In the end, perhaps that’s what Blakkr Nið brings best of all: a choice on how you’d like your consciousness ripped open.

Craig Hayes

Internationally published writer, columnist, and radio producer.