Album Review: Harjo – “The Magi” (Experimental Drone)

Written by Helena

HarjoThe Magi
> Experimental drone
> California, US
> Releasing April 7
> Independent/self-release

When I was sent the music of Harjo, it was sent with the message that it was up my “’weird shit’ alley”; and indeed it is. Harjo’s music is, truly, weird. But if my last examination was any evidence, I LOVE weird shit. Harjo is the brainchild of Brent Miller, John Angel, and sometimes collaborators (at least on this album) Travis Andrews and Salvatore Barra and, to pull from the group’s Bandcamp bio:

“Formed in the depths of a New York basement in 2010, HARJO is an aural exploration of the extreme. The electric guitar trio creates a massive wall of dark, beautiful, experimental sound that asks the listener to bathe in the complex sonic environment. Now in San Francisco, HARJO is continuing a path illuminated by the works of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, (the) Melvins, Arvo Part, and Sunn O))).”

If you all follow me on Twitter or my Bandcamp, you may notice that this is very much “my shit”; Oliveros, Cage, Arvo Pärt, and Sunn O))) are constantly in my listening repertoire and, to be honest, I never thought I would write about minimalism on a metal blog (alas, here we are). I pull their bio for the following reason: the evidence of the minimalist tradition (as best exemplified by 20th-century composers like Oliveros, Glass, and Cage) is extremely present in Harjo’s music. However, as is the case with the aforementioned, they subvert the common understanding of what “minimalism” is and create their own sonic world. Upon listening to their music for the first time, I seriously thought I was listening to a lo-fi recording of Sunn O))) (the drone metal duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson)! And that is a move that I think good old Pauline and John would enjoy.

Now, into the nitty-gritty: in his seminal 1968 essay “Music as a Gradual Process”, Steve Reich states: “The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.) I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music. To facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.” (Reich, pg.1, 1968). This is where we find our method for approaching listening to Harjo’s, and others, drone and minimalist music. It’s simply a matter of reframing our mindset. When you hear the “perceptible processes”, this is where you can find some semblance of “regular” listening; instead of blazing fast riffs with the intricate technicality of genres like tech death, the listener only needs to re-train their ears to listen for those minute changes. However, using this generic tag is not without its challenges; musical minimalism, even today, is still a radical and political term. American Minimalism did not start in the prestigious academies and conservatories of old, but in the lofts and art spaces of New York, imbuing almost a radical proletarian quality to the music. However, minimalism was not well received in its heyday. Critic Robert Fink was even quoted in saying the following: 

“Kids nowadays just want to get stoned; that traditional Western cultural values have eroded in the liberal wake of the 1960s; that minimalist repetition is dangerously seductive propaganda, akin to Hitler’s speeches and advertising; even that the commodity-fetishism of modern capitalism has fatally trapped the autonomous self in minimalist narcissism.” (Fink 2005, 63)

This is not a view to which I personally subscribe, nor does the band. To rebuke Fink’s point, Steve Reich has argued that such criticism is misplaced. In 1987 he stated that his compositional output reflected the popular culture of postwar American consumer society because the “elite European-style serial music” was simply not representative of his cultural experience. Reich stated that:

Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces after World War II. But for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1968—in the real context of tailfins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the dark brown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie”

If Reich was responding to Fink, then Harjo is responding to society en masse. Their use of minimalism (through drones and diatonic structures) is an act of rebellion against the creeping tide of fascism, just as Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez (noted serialist composers of the early 20th century).

I’ve probably bored the shit out of the three readers that actually wanted to read this article, but I felt that this context was necessary for establishing the critical framework in which I will be reviewing this album. The Magi is an album that demands the listener’s attention and asks the listener to turn up the volume. Their inspired mixture of feedback, metal riffs, and ambitious textures is unique and brilliant and offers an entry point to an otherwise impenetrable genre of music categorized by glacial riffs and even longer song lengths. “The Great Memory”, the shorter companion piece to the title track, is a spacious psychedelic trip that is a great primer for what is to come. The eponymous title track is indeed monolithic, boasting a nearly forty-two-minute run-time, which acts as a mission statement for the band. The subtle changes remind me of Aaron Turner in his project Sumac and the solo work that bears his name. The huge riffs hit you like a fucking train, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier to hear about this development from an underground project. My one criticism is that this album, although intensely beautiful and creative, lacks the fidelity necessary to communicate the incredible ideas they have on display. However, this is merely me nitpicking; the album is still insane and incredibly deep.

Upon a first examination, minimalism and metal do not seem to go together; in fact, the genres very tenants and hallmarks seem antithetical to each other. However, Harjo’s music is an aural exploration of tonality and timbre only really practiced well by a few artists: there are SO MANY Sunn O))) copycapts out there, but Harjo is not among them. Their music is not only reminiscent of the aforementioned, but reminds this listener of Dylan Carlson (of Earth fame) at his best. Earth 2, which forged the blueprint for drone metal, is the obvious comparison, but the band goes beyond this, incorporating sonic textures and ideas that sound like they should be on The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, and as far as I am concerned, is one of the highest compliments I can give as a reviewer.

Favorite track: “The Magi”
Least Fave Track: “The Great Memory” (but only because it’s too short!)