Thomas Köner






Thomas Köner’s Permafrost is, if you allow me this bold assertion, the ultimate Drone album, if not in the field of manifold textures or surprising twists, then even more so in regard to the actual meaning of this particular subgenre: Drone unsurprisingly refers to the positively soporific and mollifying monotony caused by the interplay of manifold layers which altogether create a machine-evoking buzzing sound, a sine wave-infused clarity or a sun-soaked warmth with the help of, say, electric guitar twangs. Permafrost belongs to the first category and lacks even the slightest traces of melodies. Or does it? Released in 1993 on the Barooni label and recently re-issued in 2010 on the Birmingham-based Type Records, Permafrost is a masterpiece of a slowly meandering, potentially life-threatening album. Its six tracks are chock-full of windy machine-based drones akin to large radiators or fan burners and harsh blizzards that blow away over the listener. The warmth of these mechanical machines clashes with the iciness of the wind noises. The ensuing conflict usually goes up in smoke, as the arrangements prove to be very harmonious and mellow. No snowflakes, crystalline shards or plinking icicles are explicitly transfigured into sound, no particles, molecules or vesicles are glittering, they are not even implied in the streamlined compositions, as everything seems to flow or whirl. The utter focus on this intrinsic sound formula is truly remarkable and has recently become en vogue again. Permafrost is thus a highly inventive and accessible album, but might scare away the impatient listener or Pop Ambient fan. Since it is such an important and pioneering release of this well-known film composer and sound sculptor, these potential reservations do not hold me back to review it in greater depth. You will notice that I am often stumbling for the right words, as the intriguing qualities of its dense monotony are very hard to describe. The strength of this album only shows the lacks of linguistic measurements.


Nival opens the disc with an admittedly formulaic dodge, namely a slow fade-in of an intensely mellow drone. It consists of a dark pink noise creek and a machine-like majesty. And, believe it or not, this is pretty much the whole track. Words cannot properly describe the balmy beauty and calm of this opener; the many slight shifts and the wave-like nature of the Dronescape are astonishing, this piece as well as the whole album does not sound dated in the slightest way. The only glacial artifacts consist of a blue-tinted sine wave which reappears at times, but again, it is entirely cozy and way too muffled to unleash a blizzard. This first arrangement does not contain a particularly deep bass fundament, let alone a granular incandescence, but what it lacks in vivacious contrasts, it delivers in shady pastel colors. The variety of the sounds is slim, but the minimalism is camouflaged with a bolstered snugness. I give up, there is simply not much more to say about its qualities other than the fact that I lack the words to explicate its beauty. Serac, on the other hand, is a likeminded piece with an equipollent setting of a heating engineering room, but it is here that Köner revs up the plasticity, as an abyssal sine wave is permanently floating in the distance. This particular piece is a treat for a powerful stereo equipment or good headphones. Best of all, though, is the graceful backing drone that is placed in front of a distant blizzard: it is definitely synth-based, almost transcendental, but decidedly masked by its monotony. Partially crestfallen, it is merged with equal scents of luminosity and lightness. Guess what? I lack the profound terminology yet again, but it is clear that in this Drone piece, Köner tries to mediate in the most humble way between a melodic setup – with a monotonous polyphony – and a texture-driven acroamatic machinescape. Once again it is hard to call this a frosty track per se, as this is the domain of the following Firn, which is definitely contrastive thanks to its comparatively strident approach. What starts in the same manner as before, with a mellow fade-in of distant supercharger layers and cooling fan fluxes, rises continually in tonality; the whiteness of the multiple textures creates an intrinsic synth thicket that has not been heard before on this album. If you listen carefully, you can spot an infinitesimally iridescent synth river floating in-between the oxymoronically warm coldness. The seraphic timbre of this particular dichotomy evokes an angelic near-death experience. Literally a breathtaking piece.


The 10+ minutes long eponymous centerpiece Permafrost purposefully underwhelms, as it offers simply more of the same processed panoramas in a stretched timeframe. Looming wind gusts fade in slowly, a cavernous bassline wafts through the air and around the gradually rising and falling nucleus of this freezing-cold life-threatening soundscape full of gelid landspouts. Diffusely verbose slivers of downwards hovering drones fathom out the full spectrum of Köner’s insight of balancing the forces. The triptych of bass drones, windy whooshes and a gently trembling aorta creates a pompous perilousness which itself floats along freely. No dangerous undertones are injected, no crackles or splutters present, but the simultaneity of these layers is recomposed in the listener’s head as an eternally hibernal antarctic diorama. Again, there is nothing wrong with the album’s nexus, its duration allows the listener to fully submerge, but here we have the case that the runtime increases the feeling of minimalism and potential harshness. It does make a difference whether Köner presents a relatively short Drone vignette below the six-minute mark or whether he expands the slowly unfolding and hardly dynamic layers to over ten minutes. That said, the titular Permafrost offers the same intriguing winterly landscape as all the other tracks. The penultimate Meta Incognita takes the cake in terms of its bass infusion, for the whirring bass drones are terrifically and deeply black as well as powerful in adjacency to the hazy greyness of the mist-like machine layers. The energetic setting does not stop here, as the layers swell and grow louder, culminating in a decisively icy noise layer which unchains the perniciously frowning menace via multiple layers. It is as if the listener experiences a passing storm while being in a shelter-giving antrum. The vault-like wideness is magnificently maintained thanks to the deeper patterns and the ubiquitous darkness of the bass drones. The final track is the shortest one, its title simply consists of three dots. "…" moves into moderate climes, with a surprisingly elastic blissful monotony that almost reminds of a hidden melody. It is all too soon swallowed by the foggy structures of a comparatively high thermal heat-evoking blower which fades out slowly and marks the end of this superb album.


Is Permafrost a minimal Drone album? Yes, if one considers the overarching theme and the absence of varied textures, as all of Köner’s soundscapes comprise of winds, storms, gusts and snowbanks. No, if one evaluates the aural structure of each arrangement, as there are no fissures, let alone clefts or crevasses to be found; Permafrost perfectly describes the often-used denomination of a sound carpet, and indeed are there no holes or even floating particles to be found. Every layer is silkened, the mellowness is always as important as the darker insinuations of being in a catch-22. There are warbling bass drones and whimsically trembling creeks, but the flow of Permafrost never allows the distant space to shine through. It is hence a Drone album par excellence. In its most interesting phases, the listener is asked to look behind the magnanimously texturized curtain: is this really a synth melody in the background? Does a specific timbre suggest a hallucination? Thomas Köner’s music does not give a definite answer, but questions like these make the endemic sounds all the more intriguing and fittingly refer back to the album title. It is one of the few Drone albums that is even more awe-inspiring on higher volume levels. Its machine-like settings should warn the listener to turn up the volume too high, as similar soundscapes are encountered by many workers and engineers who are usually asked to wear ear protection – the louder the album, the more tired the listener gets. Be it as it may, Permafrost features another curious but wonderful outline: it is as freezing cold as it is mollifying and warm! While not being the slightest bit eery, it is only the instinctive gut feeling of the listener and the album title which in tandem evoke bloodcurdling thoughts. An inspiring album to this day that has not aged at all and has its proverbial finger even closer on the pulse of today's time than back in 1993. An essential Drone masterpiece.




Ambient Review 157: Thomas Köner – Permafrost (1993). Originally published on Dec. 12, 2012 at