Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal

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Owen Coggins
Christopher Partridge
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion and Popular Music
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Owen Coggins examines the loose-knit and translocal community of drone metal listeners in Mysticism, Ritual and Religion in Drone Metal. The genre, which includes bands such as Monarch!, Sunn 0))), Earth, Boris, Om, and Bismuth, features twenty to seventy minute long songs with heavily amped, extremely loud (up to 200-plus decibels), low end sounds played very slowly and predominantly via electric bass, guitar, and drums. Performers frequently reference exoticized religious imagery and listeners sometimes use religious idioms to describe the visceral bodily experience of being vibrated by the hellacious volume. By focusing on the discourse that participants create and engage in about the music, Coggins seeks to provide “an alternative to dominant ways of understanding religious experience in popular culture and asserts the importance of difference and ambiguity in listener treatments of mysticism” (4). Overall, in six chapters and a conclusion, Coggins argues that “drone metal can be heard as a mystical tradition constituted in experience, text, communication, conversation, listening, discussion, performance, recording, and embodied physical vibration with sound” (173).

Early in the work, Coggins distinguishes his language-based approach to mysticism discourse within drone from that of much of previous academic scholarship on religion, music, and popular culture. He rightfully notes that earlier works such as Robin Sylvan’s Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music (NYU Press, 2002) proceeded by assuming a universal “mystical” experience and then inevitably finding it in the musical form that they were studying. He notes that in such writing, “reports of apparent ‘religious experiences’ are gathered from participants at raves or gigs, then compared with classical reports designated as authentically mystical or religious by influential scholars such as William James and Aldous Huxley. Similarities are noted and the case is closed: popular music can occasion religious experiences” (15-16). In contrast, Coggins uses Michel de Certeau’s conception of mysticism as a language practice focused on “the ongoing social and embodied uses of, creations of, responses to and communications about texts,” one in which, “mysticism is considered not as inaccessible experience but instead as reflexive, critical and participatory ways of communicating” (16). This approach successfully allows Coggins to acknowledge the religious idioms that drone metal participants use, but to avoid the perennialist pitfalls of previous religion and music subculture scholarship. 

In chapters 3 through 6, Coggins describes four themes that drone metal participants repeatedly note in the 430 surveys and 74 face-to-face interviews he conducted from 2012 to 2017. Coggins suggests all four of these themes mirror those that Certeau found in medieval Christian mysticism writings. The first theme, seen in chapter 3, like the assertions sometimes found in religious mystical discourse, is that drone metal participants claim that the experience of listening to the music cannot be accurately described by language before they proceed to do just that. “In drone metal genre discourse then,” Coggins argues, “ineffability is linked to mystical discourse” (81). Chapter 4 discusses the second theme of traversal. This refers to how listeners use a language of pilgrimage and travel to exotic and ancient places to describe their aural and embodied experiences of the music. Such tropes are often fomented by band artwork and song titles, and practitioners frequently use Western orientalist motifs of places such as Africa, India, and the Middle East as being “mystical,” “ancient,” “spiritual,” and “elsewhere.” Third, in the fifth chapter about the importance of amplification and distortion over instrumentation and structure in the genre, Coggins shows how “the vocabulary of religion, ritual and mysticism in discourse surrounding drone metal is often accompanied by this emphasis on the materiality of sound” (134). The fourth theme, discussed in chapter 6, is that of ritual, violence, and sound. Coggins notes that listeners often describe drone metal as painful to physically experience because of its loudness and length, yet it is simultaneously “held to occasion rare and profound responses, [making] listeners feel more in touch with reality and grounded in their emotions and self-perceptions and more connected with others in a listening community” (158).

Throughout the book, Coggins argues most of his points persuasively by providing ample interview and survey quotes to support his statements. But as he acknowledges in the conclusion, some readers will want more attention to the demographic differences that have appeared, but are mostly ignored, in the study. He notes that his sample was largely young, white, male, and from the United Kingdom. But for all of his useful attention to the language of participants, Coggins tells us nothing about how or if people of different genders, races, ages, and religions similarly or differently speak and write about drone metal. Aside from this issue, Coggins’s approach to mysticism discourse found in drone metal subculture is successful. And his assertion that attention to the often ambiguous, shifting, “as if” language used by participants “allows vagueness to be understood as an important, productive and sustaining resource through which listeners claim and defend freedom to explore religiosity in spaces of ambiguity” (171) is a productive finding that those engaging in religion and popular culture studies should take to heart.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean McCloud is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Owen Coggins is Honorary Associate at The Open University in the United Kingdom.


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