Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Sunn O))) - Black One

Okay; first of all, if you don't have an open mind with music then I can guarantee that you will hate Sunn O))); hell, I listen to all kinds of shit and still assumed right off the bat that I wouldn't get the point of this album. Sunn O))) have a reputation for being as impenetrable as a T-90 heavy tank and about as capable of making the ground shake; their weapons of choice are minimalist composition (read "the same bass rhythm for 12 minutes"), droning bass and electronic noises, faint black metal riffs and growling feedback. However, their "White" series are considered avant-garde opuses and the "Black One" features both Wrest, of Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice and Twilight and Malefic, the misanthropic mastermind of black metal night-terrors Xasthur, as  guest vocalists (I heartily recommend all the aforementioned bands), so I thought I'd give it a go.

 The presentation of the disk is very nice, if coming across as clinging to the coat-tails of the left-field black metal scene; the cover art is as ominous as it is nonsensical, but could easily be made for Blut Aus Nord, or Leviathan, or Krallice, or anyone else for that matter. A quick peek at the lyrics follow the same trend; I almost hope Wrest and Malefic wrote the lyrics themselves as I was kind of hoping such a strange band would be less generic.

 Having never experienced them before, I had no idea going into the experience whether this was their experimental album - Wikipedia seems to define all their albums as such - but the slow, murky trickle of ambient noise instantly unnerved me. Distorted drum beats and what sounds like low groaning opens the album's intro, "Sin Nanna" are probably how I should be describing the sounds produced but I can guarantee that what you're imagining is not what this sounds like; Gregory Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have created something unlike certainly anything I've ever heard before. This aural collage goes on for about two minutes before the first proper track starts; slow black metal guitars layered over the most intense bass I've ever come across in music; one long, droning sequence played again and again, hypnotically rhythmic and high enough in the mix that even with my bass speaker turned down I could feel the air around me pulsing. Wrest's vocal performance is nothing less than extraordinary, as can be expected from the leader of underground US black metal. The track is surprisingly easy to listen to thanks to the prominence of the guitars giving a recognisable focal point; indeed, it seems like drumless, slowed down black metal, which is not a bad thing.

 Following track "Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)", a cover of the notorious Immortal takes this idea and runs with it, becoming almost farcically "kvlt". Malefic's on vocals this time round, at first screeching amidst literal arctic winds (they actually sent a crew to Antarctica to get the recording, though sadly they did NOT make Malefic himself howl away there) before bass and industrial distortion takes over again. To reiterate, they have Malefic, who is black metal incarnate, howling Immortal lyrics amid ACTUAL ARCTIC FUCKING WINDS. Soon the track becomes a more "normal" Sunn O))) track, complete with thundering bass and guitars. And oh! the guitars in this album. An approach which in unique in my experience, Sunn O))) play guitar not for the note, but for the sound of it fading and feeding back into a shrill whine. The effect achieved is nothing less than superb, fading in and out of thick distortion and culminating in simple, yet consumingly atmospheric riffs. Eventually the static of the track overwhelms the speakers and the track ends.

 The rest of the tracks are largely "typical" Sunn O))), with ominous doom riffs at least half as slow as they should be and the usual intense bass. But there is one more highlight; closer "Bathory Erzsebet", named after both notorious cannibal/faux vampire Elizabeth Bathory and black metal band Bathory (this song is in fact a reimagining of the aforementioned band's "A Fine Day To Die"). Until 7:03 this song is just computer- manipulated bass but it suddenly erupts into the unusually dissonant guitars and the centrepiece of the album; the claustrophobic Malefic, locked inside a coffin for recording, delivering vocals that are part black metal screech and part terrified cries - a microphone inside the coffin even lets us hear his panicked breathing. This pure, distilled terror makes for one of the most uncomfortable vocal performances ever recorded - the man deserves a Grammy (that'll be taken by some posing musical harlot whose "genuine" musical performance will net millions while one man performing enraptured in true, utter horror goes unappreciated). 

Then, the album ends, and at this point if you'd asked me my opinion I wouldn't be able to give you one. About a minute after my first listen I just kind of continued browsing the internet, before suddenly feeling perplexed; if only for the feel of having the air around me vibrate, the music on Black One created a truly astonishing ambience. The utter coldness of ambience no black metal record has ever properly achieved, the stunning vocal performances and the bass that fills the room effortlessly, the wonderful production that makes for a perfectly defined wall of sound and the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of it. I tried listening to other music but Black One's being designed for a heavy bass speaker means that despite overpowering bass the production holds, leaving everything else sounding tinny and unsatisfying (you know something wrong when Isis just doesn't sound deep enough).  This album isn't like other avant-garde music because this band isn't just rebelling against the musical rulebook; they have every intention that their aural collages will replace it. Their vision of what they want their music to be is completely formed, and it couldn't sound any better.

A lot of people won't like this; in fact, the vast, vast, VAST majority won't. I loved it. Find a good audio system, (with a good subwoofer) give it a try, and if you get it, it will be an addition to your collection unlike any you'll ever hear, and more satisfying than almost anything.


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