The vanguards of heavy drone music, Sunn O))), unleashes a twirling maelstrom of sound, that is equally an endurance test, as it is an example of minimalism and maximalism, inviting the audience to an exercise in deep listening.
There is a classic scene in the 1984 movie “This is Spinal Tap” – a hilarious “rockumentary”about the world’s loudest band, the (fictional) heavy metal group Spinal Tap – in which the lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, is presenting his custom Marshall amplifier, that has its volume knobs modified to go all the way up to 11, when most amps go only up to 10. So, in his mind, if someone is rocking out at full 10, then there’s nowhere to go after that, and since his group needs that “extra push over the cliff”, they have to be able to turn it up to 11.
“One louder!”, as he elegantly points out – and also something nobody, who has ever witnessed the force that is Sunn O))), the Seattle-based drone metal titan, would say.
At first, it might appear that Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, the core duo and the founding members of the experimental act (also of Burning Witch, Khanate, Thorr’s Hammer and countless of other collaborations within the alternative music scene), do nothing but flirt with the similar, over-the-top rock and roll aesthetics, which were satirized in Spinal Tap, by embodying uncompromising and grandiose theatrics when performing as Sunn O))).
And not only does their trademark include the philosophy of “up to 11” – or as in their own words: “maximum volume yields maximum results” – but also has the members dressing themselves in robes like gothic monks, filling up the venue with dense clouds of fog (so much, that in fact, the band has a continuous partnership with a dry ice machine company). They push out extremely slow, sludgy riffs from downtuned guitars, sounding like Black Sabbath being played at tortoiselike speed on a panoramic scale.
Sunn O))) is also known to pay attention to the environmental context of “set and setting” whenever possible, by handpicking many of the venues in the countries they wish to perform at. Those picks have included multiple churches, such as the Dominican church of Louvain in Belgium, and an abandoned power plant in Toronto.
There are many, many tales, in a proper Spinal Tap-like fashion, revolving around the band and their performance; from people having sex during their gigs, or just lying on the floor, meditating, to stories about the audience projectile vomiting or passing out because of the crushing sound pressure; or of the band going to such extremes during the recording of what could be considered as their most sinister album, Black One (2005), that they locked the black metal musician Malefic (of Xasthur), who suffers from claustrophobia, in a casket to make his vocals on the track “Báthory Erzsébet” sound as tormented as possible.
A lot has changed during Sunn O)))’s 20 years of existence, between the debut album, The GrimmrobeDemos (2000), and this year’s “twins”, Life Metal and Pyroclasts.
Starting off in the late 90s, when it was just two metal heads with the goal of doing nothing more than to worship the sounds of acts such as the sludge forerunners Melvins, or the pioneers of drone metal Earth. Done in a basement somewhere in Los Angeles, surrounded by amplifiers and played as loud as possible.
(O’Malley and Anderson even named their pet project after the amplifier brand Sunn, with a playful dedication to both Earth – whose adventures in minimalistic, yet heavy, drone music in the early 90s (with albums like Earth 2 and Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions) gave them their blueprint – and, naturally, to the manufacturer of their favourite cabinets; a sound and a name they’ve used to this day, and have not, surprisingly, been sued yet.)
From day one, Sunn O))) has maintained their love for collaboration on their records; at first having artists such as Nurse With Wound and Merzbow work their magic in the background, but it wasn’t until their third album, White 1 (2003), when they utilized a distinct departure from their drone worship, and incorporated elements of avant garde into their sound, by having the English musicologist Julian Cope reciting occultic poetry on the song My Wall – one of the many highlights in Sunn O)))’s career.
Since then, they have also collaborated with such names as Scott Walker, Boris, Ulver, Attila Chisar and Dylan Carlson of Earth, and have toyed with elements of free jazz on their records, like with the song Alice from their 2009 album Monoliths and Dimensions.
Their biggest game changer, however, occurred in a typically strange fashion, on the same year as the White 1 release, when they were invited to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK, curated by the electronic music duo Autechre.
It was history in the making, since Sunno O)) had never performed in Europe at the time and were offered to be the small opening act in the middle of the day. By sheer chance, they were suddenly asked if they wanted to grab one of the headline slots – not because they were so sought after, but because – out of all the bands – Earth, their biggest mentor, had missed their flight.
So the band, on their very first tour, was now performing on the big stage, replacing Earth, the legend they worshipped. That show opened the doors for them to a whole new world of listeners, since it turned out that Sunn O)))’s genre-busting sound was also compatible with an audience consisting mostly of electronic music fans.
And such was notable at Helsinki Hall of Culture on a Tuesday night; a big crowd, consisting of fans from all walks of life. Sunn O))) was on their extensive European tour and the lineup consisting, alongside the core duo, of Tos Nieuwenhuizen (Moog synthesizer) and Steve Moore, a New York-based multi-instrumentalist and an old-time collaborator, aside selected special guests, such as the German musician Caspar Brötzmann, who performed his Bass Totem as one of the night’s opening acts.
Reviewing a Sunn O))) concert can be a bit of a challenge, since it can easily end up sounding extremely corny and/or pretentious, by resting largely on attempts to find befitting adjectives, and end up sounding like someone trying to describe a feeling, taste or colour to another person.
But what is unequivocally true, overblown or not, is that witnessing Sunn O))) live is an experience – an engaging experience.
It was an evening (including the opening numbers by Caspar Brötzmann and the Finnish electronic musician Ilpo Väisänen of Pan Sonic) without clear melody, beats, rhythm or any obvious structure, and with all the Sunn O)))’s trademarks included; the lifting of arms in slow motion, and between gulps from a bottle of red wine, preparing to lay down the next, air pressure-altering riff, the dense fog, the robes and, naturally, the most crucial element: the saturated, vibrating mantra, channeled through Sunn O)))’s barricade of amplifiers (at the intensity of 125 decibels, levels equivalent to a jet engine) – so enormous in size, that they loomed threateningly over the stage like the (24) pillars of faith, forming a bridge, not between heaven and earth, but the evermore infernal regions of purgatory.
Novæ (Life Metal), the set opener, eradicates the eerie silence of an anticipating audience with its first chord, introducing both, the eardrums and the very foundations of the room to a force no-one should be meddling with without earplugs.
From there, the shrouded sorcerers shift the, now hypnotic flow, continuously into Troubled Air (Life Metal), unleashing the Moog synthesizers alongside the roaring feedback of the three guitars, bringing yet another tactile element with their sub-bass tones to the already transfixing listening experience.
Since their last tour, the lineup has gone through the departure of their long-lasting and extensive collaborator Attila Chisar – hence removing his unhallowed chants, screeches and ceremonial garbs from the live setting, making it all feel even more like a meditative exercise.
It is also noticeable that Sunn O)))’s general mindset has shifted the sound towards a more cerebral direction, away from the doom-and-gloom of their early years – a change that can be clearly heard on their aforementioned releases Life Metal and its “sister album” Pyroclasts, both produced by the legendary Steve Albini, who forged the records to sound like their best work yet.
O’Malley himself describes Sunn O)))’s new ventures, especially with Life Metal (an inside joke among band members, meant to playfully contrast the death metal genre), as a sort of personal reflection of his own life also; by feeling deeply changed since becoming a father and thus having a different outlook on things.
Sunn O)))’s songs are long, so the shows are designed to have one, big piece that mutates slowly from one section to another. The final half of the show introduces the soundscape of Pyroclasts; an album that was recorded during the same two-week sessions that produced Life Metal, consisting of modal drone improvisations that the band would play either before or after a full day in the recording studio.
Its quiet microtones and overtones take hold over the roaring feedback and slowly bring forth a stillness in the air, like the serenity after a glacier’s slow, rumbling race has finally ended into the calm of the ocean.
From that subdued section, held together only by Moog synthesizer’s soft, almost whispering tremor, emerges a highly cinematic and gorgeous trombone solo by Steve Moore, sounding like a slowed down, despairing bugle call over a desolate landscape.
The final crunch Stephen O’Malley, Greg Anderson and their fellow hooded conjurers deliver after the hushed tones section, feels like the sound pressure is trying to swallow up all physical restrictions in its path. You are now sitting on a vibrating chair and the sound is coming from within you, flowing outwards, instead of being pushed at you.
Their sonic mantra of ungodly noise has reached nirvana and the ceremony comes to an end, slowly dropping the audience back to reality from the fracture in time and space in which everyone just spent almost two hours in.
With Sunn O))), their “extra push over the cliff” does not just mean that they take it further than anyone else, but it is the realization that once one has fallen over the edge, there is no ground or bottom to be seen either.
Still, no matter how maniacally loud and demanding their modus operandi is, it is still, in its æther, firmly rooted in deep listening; a process that requires “the temporary suspension of judgement, and a willingness to receive new information – whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral”.
And that is Sunn O))) in a nutshell.
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