Beyond the Beat Dimension
For Martin Dumais, Aun is part of a dance to drone continuum
Eric Hill - December 08, 2010
For Martin Dumais, and now partner Julie LeBlanc, it is the physical presence of the drone that is the key to happiness. “Half jokingly, like a metal guitarist trying to find the ultimate riff, I have tried to create ultimate drone, whatever that could be. It’s just a hell of a rush standing in a wall of sound filled with subs and crazy harmonics, that can only exist within a certain sound pressure level. By exploring several angles in the drone genre, I now find drone is just a color of the canvas, our music being more about melody and harmonics than minimal composition. A lot of the appeal of drone is the trance like and meditative state that can engulf the listeners, and those are qualities we always try to convey regardless of the style, which is constantly evolving into something that is much more than pure drone.”
To say Martin Dumais was born to drone may only be a slight overstatement. His bio on the Oral label, home of his earliest recordings as Aun, makes mention of his classical musician parents and especially his father who, early on, would bring Martin along to hear some of the most powerful church organs in the world. Dumais asserts he “got into loud heavy and experimental music at a very young age… probably because it appealed to my against the grain and somewhat hardcore character.”
Photo by Jean-Sebastien Roux
Prior to launching Aun, Dumais was well established in Montréal’s burgeoning electronic music scene. His Hautec label provided first exposure for artists like Akufen, Deadbeat and Champion in the early to mid 90s. His own early musical pursuits included playing in multifaceted electronic duo, Les Jardiniers with JF Charette. DJing duties took him all over the world and, locally, he enjoyed a four-year stint at Les Foufounes Electriques. All the while he took on commissioned compositional work for television, film and even the St. Joseph Oratory.
As electronic music flourished in Montréal, his pursuits never narrowed to exclude other avenues in sound. For this reason he doesn’t consider Aun to be a definitive move away from a career in electronic music toward something else. “I’ve never done much purely electronic music, having started as a limited but intuitive guitarist with a knack for effects and electronics, so from my perspective it’s nothing sudden. In my previous outfit Les Jardiniers, we integrated live acoustic drums, guitar, vocals and field recordings, so it’s not much of a stretch instrument wise.” Becoming Aun in 2006, was merely an act, he says, of, “shutting down the computer and wiping the slate and picking up any instrument I had on hand.”
Aun’s first output was a triptych of releases on Quebec’s Oral label.Titled Whitehorse,Blackhorse and Mule, they feature sleeve artwork by wife and future musical collaborator Julie LeBlanc. These works are built around layers of tone that grow and recede in density, maintaining an aura of unease and menace without going to extremes of frequency or volume. Dumais credits these initial steps as “a chance to re-explore what actually drove [me] to create music originally, namely ambient, experimental and the first waves of industrial music and German electronics.” So, still primarily an electronic music, but one he felt expressed a new energy, “I just left out the beat dimension, which in turn gave me a lot of the freedom I needed at that point […].
Re-vitalized and free of somewhat self-imposed creative shackles.” Dumais loosed the shackles even further with a 2008 limited CD-R release on the Crucial Bliss series from Crucial Blast that British icon Julian Cope described as “[s]itting fogbound under 35,000 feet of Zero Visibility; its just the kind of O.D. it’s difficult not to succumb to in these dark Winter days.”
This more extreme approach to the drone, both low tone pummeling and ear shredding high noise, along with its release on a metal-first label, garnered favourable press and many comparisons to other experimental metal acts. When asked about Earth, Nadja and Sunn O))) and about his own metal leanings Dumais confesses, “I really am not the biggest big metal fan…. Let’s just say my mixtapes did include Swans and Sonic Youth, but more Kraftwerk, via Cabaret Voltaire, Suicide or Erik B and Rakim, and not really Venom or Metallica.”
The aspects that make Aun’s music compelling, oddly familiar, and yet ultimately idiosyncratic are the many overlapping rings that make up its Venn diagram: there is his aforementioned love of noisy guitar (Swans, Sonic Youth) and cold minimalist keyboards (Kraftwerk, Suicide); you can hear baroque elements of classical music, especially when Dumais’ violin is drawn into the mix; more slippery is the provenance of his ambient leanings, which at times resemble early to mid 90s isolationist works by Justin Broadrick or Akira Rabelais, or more contemporary analogues from Eluvium or Tim Hecker. When quizzed on his less obvious influences Dumais volunteers “Troum’s constant musical integrity, […] Stars of the Lid make some of the most beautiful music at the moment. Robin Guthrie, Jon Hassel and listening to my old Mike Oldfield and 70’s period ECM records albums, recently.”
There is a definite see-saw battle between the atmospheric and the aggressive in Aun’s output. After the fiery furnace of Multigone comes the cold mechanics of Motorsleep, his 2009 release on Montréal’s Alien8 label. Mastered by Khanate’s James Plotkin, the album flows along like an ice-choked stream during a late winter thaw: slowly, deliberately and full of brittle power. The album grows quieter and more melodic as it progresses, leading to “Then Spring.” Here the frost melts as Dumais pulls in more serene elements of Stars of the Lid and Jesu, maintaining traces of bristling distortion just under the track’s more placid surface. This loud/quiet dialectic of mood bleeds even into his personal stereo setup, there to serve his, “soft spot for ambient dreamy music, so I enjoy various listening experiences,” he says, “so much so we have 4 complete sound systems at home that cater to different, styles and moods.”
Current work continues this loud vs. quiet(er) balance. The former is illustrated more than adequately on VII, a release on the Janus-like Important Records label. VII stands apart from the rest of Aun’s discography for a few reasons, but most notable is the tribal drum contribution by Voivod’s Michel "Away" Langevin. “Either rehearsing, recording or playing live with Michel is like a day at the beach, because he is such a nice person, and I don’t know many drummers locally who have the same interests in experimental music as I do, so basically a great collaborator and I hope to do it again in the future.” The mid tempo percussion also serves to distinguish the album from the more turgid tone most drone metal prefers, yet Dumais’ lead-ins and wall of noise keep everything at equal distance from the Neurosis / Om brands of moody metal.
The very recently released flipside to VII, is Black Pyramid that finds a home on Canada’s experimental industrial ambient label Cyclic Law. Dumais’ own assessment of the album is that “it’s quite a dense and somewhat claustrophobic recording in parts, [but] I think with Julie’s larger contribution, it has a bit more optimism within.”
In many ways it is a culmination of Aun’s five years of work. With more space for keyboards and electronics than allotted for quite a while, it resembles the early Oral label releases’ simplicity at times, and at others, its sound is more like all three of those albums played simultaneously. It also comes closest to the fractured electronics of Tim Hecker or Fennesz than ever before, though with a much more live and in the room physical presence.
Dumais surmises that it isn’t always about unbridled power. “I do sometimes create music that when played at high to loud levels can be very physically engaging, even sometimes dizzying because of its sub-sonics and several levels of activity, and because some of the sounds being sourced from pure electricity and feedback, it sometimes very much feels as if you were in a high voltage area. But because of a strong melodic backbone, what can sometimes appear to be a wall of sound on high levels, becomes very musical at lower volumes.” And of this concession to turning it down he elaborates: “The music we are currently working on is by no means background music, but is not necessarily intended or needed to be played very loud, which in turn makes it more practical, since lots of venues and cheap headphones have trouble reproducing such extreme music. Its also easier to play longer sets, the very physical sound can be very draining, I actually almost fainted a few times during live sets because of the sound pressure in the last years.”
Eric Hill manages a venerable indie record shop, Backstreet Records, in Fredericton, NB. He has been a regular contributor to Exclaim! for many years and programmes the bi-monthly experimental music podcast Surgery Radio. He also curates the Surgery Series for Gallery Connexion in Fredericton.