MONOLITHS AND DIMENSIONS
Being the most suffocatingly intense band in the world is clearly not enough for Sunn O))). No, they insist on gathering Eyvind Kang, Dylan Carlson, Julian Priester and others, referencing Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane, and evolving right out of their robes. Each of these four tracks is a standout in its own right. ‘Aghartha’ splinters under its own mass as chords fall like slabs of meat upon cold tiles, Attila Csihar intones at the speed of granite, and Namoric horns summon behemoths. The astonishing ‘Big Church’ interweaves the divine and the diabolical: a seraphic choir led by Jessika Kenney wards off hellish grinding, to genuinely theologically terrifying effect. Unusually direct and rocking, ‘Hunting & Gathering’ rides a gnarly riff redolent of Boris-era Melvins. But ‘Alice’, the most explicitly Kangy piece, is the apex. Rising swells of brass and electronics puncture prairie chimes, and its overwhelming climax is, quite unfeasibly, like emerging from a barbed nightmare into a field of fragrant orchids. Brutal, evocative, horrifying and beautiful, Monoliths… is the sound of Sunn O))) obliterating expectations.
(originally published in Plan B)
SUNN O))) @ CORSICA STUDIOS, LONDON
A sentient health-and-safety violation shambles his way through the crowd, swinging a hot censer billowing an intense High Catholic fug. Security bricks of intimidating proportions follow in his wake, stern, nervous. O’Malley and Anderson, standing before an altar made of amps, and hidden beneath austere, moon-grey ceremonial robes, cast claw-like gestures of supplication. The acolytes respond in kind. In case the symbolism is lost, this is Church. Yea, we are gathered here to worship. And the divine object of our pitiful, wretched adoration is the first two seconds of the opening riff of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’. It’s in that moment, the first charred chord, a wrecking ball striking a tomb wall, that metal was forged. Many claims have been made for the diabolical influence of the whole tritone riff, but the real startling power lies in the pure intestinal impact of that single chord strike. Sunn o))) take this insight, and extrapolate it to infinity. Lower, slower, louder. Lower, slower, louder. Repeat until dead, deaf or immortal.
In truth, the second of those three options is the most likely. I’ve attended some sadistically loud gigs in my time. For me, Mogwai, a decade ago at the Astoria, was probably the first to go beyond pedestrian levels of stupefying heavy-metal volume and into the realms of Mega-City One sonic weaponry. Wolf Eyes, Merzbow, Jazkammer, My Bloody Valentine, Part Chimp, a particularly harrowing one-on-one in a small room with Kylie Minoise – all, in their own way, were thoroughly excessive in unreasonably thrilling ways. But Sunn o)))… Loud, yes. Stupidly loud, certainly. But loud in a way that you hear from the ground up. Music that gives your duodenum tinnitus, drones that reverberate through your skeleton. The knees take the brunt; the pelvis only suffers a touch of purpling at its crest. By the time the shockwaves reach your ears they’re a mere shade of themselves, only capable of semi-lethally roughing up your soft tissues for their lunch money.
Tonight’s one-off is a low-key low-end treat for grimm devotees. In town to plug their upcoming release, Monoliths & Dimensions, Anderson and O’Malley revisit the now-we-are-ten Grimmrobes Demos. (Or at least something potentially approximating them. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to extract anything recognisable from this overwhelming caustic morass.) In recent years, Sunn o))) have expanded their line-up, their putrefying sound given living, liquid form by freshly disinterred vocals from Attila Csihar; extra muscle and mass from Justin Broadrick; morbidly swelling textures from Guapo’s Daniel O’Sullivan (whose support slot tonight as Grumbling Fur, in collaboration with Alexander Tucker, wove transporting rural gothic terror-drones from mere violin and cello), etc. But tonight, they’re devolved: no guests, no guff, just two guitars, some leftover Rosicrucian habits, a wall of Sunn amps, some really, really, really sloooow and heavy riffs, The End.
Not only that, but their usual obfuscating theatrics are hamstrung. The hot spotlights sizzle O’Malley’s cloak, and every few minutes he makes frustrated throat-slicing cut-the-lights gestures to the techies. The trademark shield of dry ice fails to co-operate too, dissipating almost as soon as it is fwooshed on stage, leaving them looking like thwarted conjurors. (As an aside, a universal gig truth: no matter how loud your band, that fwoosh is much louder.) Yet, denuded in several ways, Sunn o))) are at their most powerful. Underneath all the husks and disguises and grandiose artistic trappings that they’ve acquired lately is a concentrated distillation of the proper heavy stuff: pure mainlined Melvins tar, only without the distracting fripperies of, y’know, actual songs and words and beats and all that extraneous crap.
(Yes, Earth did it first, and arguably better, but Carlson’s gone all Shimmering Jim Jarmusch these days. A noble and beautiful pursuit, for sure, but someone has to keep the bones quaking.)
For all its cultish congregational air, this experience is in fact a solipsistic one, in which each individual locks into the psycho- and physiological effects of extreme bass and volume and slowness. We’re dwarfed by noise. We’ve shrunk to microscopic size and are being fired down a high-voltage cable. We’re trapped inside that Black Sabbath drang like a wasp in a jam jar. Music that moves at extreme speeds, fast or slow, makes its own tempo in a secret, personal pact with the listener. And this intimacy reveals a truth – the trappings of gothic doom and monastic horror, of extremity and misery and degradation, tend to detract from the simple fact that Sunn o))) are both FUN and SEXY, no? So cartoonishly extreme that they’re entertainingly preposterous; so perfectly refined in terms of pure Platonic-form sonics that anyone with even the vaguest love for the crushing chug must surely abandon themselves to this frill-free sensual celebration. This is metal-as-fetish, anatomical riff examination, the frotting of the frets, the orgasm of the overdrive.
Come and worship. Worship and come.
(originally published in Plan B)