This is an album of such glorious and near-comic excess that it could only have been released by Hospital Productions, as it clocks in at a staggering 2 1/2 hours of brooding dark ambiance. In fact, it feels like a perverse negative image of the perfectly distilled brutality of last year's Relief, drowsily stretching out endlessly in drone-mode without a hint of violence to be found. A few of these seven pieces are (of course) quite good for what they are, but this is not an album that showcases Drumm's power, vision, and distinctiveness particularly well at all.
Drumm is not exactly a stranger to ambient drone music, but his first foray into that realm (2008's Imperial Distortion) was quite a polarizing event for his fans (in fact, Kevin seemed quite conflicted about it himself in some interviews). That effort gradually (and rightfully) came to be regarded as one of the highlights of Drumm's discography, however, as did its similarly excellent follow-up Imperial Horizon. Tannenbaum is a continuation of that thread in some ways (it is ambient rather than harsh noise, after all), but it is perplexingly divergent as well.
It definitely shares some common ground with some of Imperial Distortion's darker pieces, but the complete album is an altogether more minimal, cold, and alienating affair, often stretching one chord or idea to 10 minutes or more with little variation or development. "Grace," for example, is little more than a fairly static insectoid buzz. While that arguably works somehow, the album's opening hour-long drone slog "Night Side" most certainly does not. Nor do several other pieces, particularly "Taurean," which sounds like Kevin fell asleep face-down on a synthesizer for half an hour.
I am not at all hostile or dismissive towards long-form drone ultra-minimalism, as several people can do it quite beautifully (Eliane Radigue or Machinefabriek, for example). Unfortunately, most artists are not quite up to that formidable challenge and I am sad to say that Drumm is one of them. He does not crash-and-burn horribly or anything, but his pieces in that vein feel faceless, overlong, and unsatisfying–there is nothing at all about them that stands out at particularly Drumm-esque. When I pick up a Kevin Drumm album, I do not want to hear something that a dozen or more other artists could have recorded. Also, there are a number of confounding compositional issues, such as the fact that the warm thrum of "Gradual Extinction" unfolds for 8 minutes with no real evolution, then seemingly fades out completely before the more vibrant two-minute coda appears.
Fortunately, Kevin fares significantly better with album's darker, heavier moments. My favorite piece is the 20-minute "Winter Ice." While it is just as minimal and static as some of the album's more exasperating moments, it is far more compelling due to its gently swaying and blurry dissonance. The heavier, rumbling "Dimming the Gas Lights" also stands out, as it is certainly the most visceral stretch of Tannenbaum. It reminds me of Lustmord or some of Thomas Köner's dark ambient work, but it packs a bit more snarl, often sounding like inhuman howls and moans from deep space during the controlled chaos of its crescendo.
On one level, I am pleased that Kevin did not cynically or lazily repeat the same formula that made the two Imperial albums so great, but it is hard to see this album as anything other than a serious misfire or an uneven grab-bag that could have greatly benefited from some added focus and editing. I honestly do not think Tannenbaum should have been released in this state, particularly given the high standards that Drumm has maintained throughout his career. There is certainly a good 40-50 minute album buried amidst the stupefying amount of filler, but even that is not so good that it eclipses my utter bewilderment at some of the decisions that Kevin made. In particular, I cannot stop wondering why "Night Side" needed to last an entire hour, as so infuriatingly little happens (I am certain it could have said just as much in 10 or 15 minutes). I had such high hopes too. Though it pains me to say it, Tannenbaum is truly an album for completists and obsessive fans only–Kevin Drumm is capable of far better and more distinctive work than this.