Harry Sword: Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion (2022, Third Man Books)
Monolithic Undertow arrived at Sorry State in early July, just before we left for our big European tour. Based on the book’s description and my trust in the Third Man brand (particularly when it comes to the written word… how many times can I tell you to read Maggot Brain?), I was excited to read it, but I decided against dragging it through a dozen-plus countries and fighting to read it through bouts of carsickness. I’m glad I exercised patience, because I enjoyed the book and I’m not sure that would have happened if I didn’t give it the attention it deserved.
Monolithic Undertow investigates the history and significance of the drone, tracing humans’ engagement with the idea through millennia of cultural development. Sword defines the drone as an “audio space” where “sounds don’t (or, crucially appear not to) change at all.” He casts a wide net, finding examples of the drone in everything from the persistent hum of the natural world to the clatter of city life to the myriad musical traditions, both ancient and modern, that de-emphasize change and modulation. The significance of the drone is, ultimately, the reaction it causes in humans. Confronting a phenomenon that (theoretically, at least) does not change throws the emphasis back on our own (often fragile, mutable) psyches, much like the psychedelic experience, sending us to a third place where we are both participant in and observer of our own consciousness. It’s not about listening so much as being. I’m hitting a wall attempting to articulate what I mean here, but if you don’t have a taste for philosophizing, Monolithic Undertow probably isn’t for you.
While there isn’t a big section break at the halfway point, Monolithic Undertow is a book of two halves. Roughly half the book covers music up to and including the Velvet Underground, while the latter half of the book examines the rock era. The Velvet Underground is crucial for Sword because they’re the bridge between the avant-garde and the mainstream, the underground and the overground, carving a door to the wider world that everyone from Faust to Sunn O))) could charge right through.
For me, the first half of Monolithic Undertow is the real meat of the book. Sword goes way back, surveying a field called archaeoacoustics that I never knew existed. These scholars examine archaeological evidence, drawing conclusions about what the past sounded like. Swords spends much of the first chapter writing about the acoustic properties of Neolithic gathering spaces in caves, analyzing the way these spaces reverberate and imagining what sorts of sonic rituals might have happened in them thousands of years ago. It all feels very speculative, but that’s par for the course with paleoanthropology, since the archaeological record of the Neolithic period is so sparse. From there, Sword examines the drone as a motif in a range of religious and cultural traditions across the world and throughout recorded history, with a heavy emphasis on the Indian music tradition that so shaped 20th and 21st-century music. This is all history I was dimly aware of, but Sword is an excellent guide, providing plenty of signals of where to continue exploring if your curiosity is piqued.
I enjoyed the second half of Monolithic Undertow, but it was less revelatory for me. Sword’s history of the drone in the post-Velvet Underground musical landscape amounts to a capsule history of “head” / drug / psychedelic / trance / etc music, with a chapter each on kosmiche / German progressive / “Krautrock” (including Hawkwind, the main British purveyors of that style), doom and drone metal, and ambient and electronic music. The former two genres I’ve spent some time exploring so there wasn’t much that was news to me, but the electronic music chapter introduced me to some interesting new sounds (like, for instance, JK Flesh, a Justin Broadrick project that fuses techno, industrial, and dub reggae). Besides these histories being well-trod ground for music critics, I felt like Sword’s concept of the drone gets very loose in these chapters. Several times, I found myself thinking, “wait, what does this have to do with the drone?”While Sword doesn’t say this (at least that I remember), it seems as if in more recent music, the drone is less a musical motif and more of an idea(l), a semi-inchoate resistance to the idea that everything needs to be changing, evolving, and generating excitement all the time.
While I have these minor quibbles, Monolithic Undertow taught me about a bunch of music I didn’t know about, and it and kept me thinking long after I put the book down. In my mind, those are the marks of a great music book. Score another win for Third Man.
Note: Of course, just as I chose this book as my staff pick, we sold our last copy. I’ll try to get a restock next time we order from Third Man, and if you’d like to be notified when the restock comes in, there’s the handy “email me when available” widget on our website.