Sunn O))): Kannon
Southern Lord (2015)
Don your robes, light your torches and bow down to the Drone; Sunn O))) are back, in black.
Kannon is the sound of pagan rituals, full moons peering through dense forest foliage, firelight, candles and old gods rising from the murk. Hooded figures huddle over their instruments in the mist. Dense waves of distorted drone impregnate your body and rattle your organs. Your joints threaten to come loose. Your only option is succumbing to the meditative trance placed on you.
For almost 20 years now Sunn O))) have traded in down-tuned guitars playing snail-paced riffs at bowel shattering volumes, each note drawn out into a feedback drenched drone. Their music is thick and textured like impasto paint, a sound that takes physical form. They’ve spent time embellishing this concept with all manner of decoration, taking the sound as far as they can, but Kannon strips back the guff and returns to their roots.
The choirs, chamber orchestras and FX from 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions have been stripped right back and buried in the mix. Anything non-guitar is present for atmosphere only, a mere canvas for the band’s blackened drones.
Regular collaborator Attila Csihar returns to provide a range of bizarre incantations and proves what a versatile contributor he is to the realms of extreme and experimental music. He floats between monochromatic chanting, and textural growls reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing or the extraterrestrial from the Predator movie franchise. He is theatrical, cinematic and incredibly evocative.
I was enamoured by the ambition of Monoliths and Dimensions on its release. You had to admire the balls that Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson showed by taking the project so far from its core. But eventually I returned to those earthier, grittier and frankly more contemplative early recordings. On Kannon, Sunn O))) sound like they too have realised simplicity is a blessing. This record is a fucking cracker.
Stephen O’Malley: Gruidés
Regulars of this site and The Antidote Podcast will know that I worship at the altar of Stephen O’Malley. Whether it’s Sunn O))), or his stints in Khanate and Burning Witch, or his myriad collaborations over the years I’m down with it all.
O’Malley’s debut orchestral composition is another cracker. Recorded in a Parisian church and performed by a 35 piece avant-orchestra, Gruidés gives modern classical music a divine drone makeover. This is quiet and contemplative music made for headphone nightmares.
Kicking off with percussive clash, Gruidés settles gently into a single note sustained by a range of instruments for an extravagant 8 minutes. The contrasting timbres of strings and reeds drift in and out of focus, giving sonic texture to O’malley’s minimalist palette. Tightly wound toms and lazy cymbals strike at random intervals reminiscent of the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack. But, there’s nothing schlocky about Gruidés. The vibe is unsettling in a Hitchcockian manner.
Gradually each instrument begins peeling away from the initial drone and new notes create layers of dissonance. The effect is cinematic in the extreme. It’s uncomfortable but also dripping with Gothic romance.
It’s unfair to say that not much else happens during Gruidés 35 minutes; the devil is in the raw sound of humans playing acoustic instruments. Like the best of Kevin Drumm’s minimalist work, subtlety is what makes it compelling. O’Malley shows amazing restraint as he slowly, very slowly, increases the tension. He gives the listener the briefest respite in Gruidés closing moments when a bombastic brass section floods in, accompanied by something vaguely resembling a rhythm. Patience is always rewarded, if only for a moment.
Ensemble Pearl: Self Titled
Drag City (2013)
Stephen O’Malley seems to release a new collaborative record every other day. The guy is prolific, and it’s not like he’s banging out ‘noise’ tracks on a broken synthesiser in his bedroom either. He creates intricate and highly considered music, as described in this fantastic video interview at the Red Bull Music Academy. In general we’ve come to expect a trademark sound from O’Malley and the projects he’s involved in; that of crushing and meditative doom ambience. There are exceptions though.
For example, last year’s stunning and underrated KTL record (his collaboration with with Editions Mego boss Peter Rehberg) eschewed doom for a much more delicate combination of acoustic and electronic drones. Ensemble Pearl takes another surprising left hand path.
Perhaps it’s the presence of Boris collaborators Atsuo and Michio Kurihara, bringing that group’s occasional post rock leanings to the table. Or maybe it’s something to do with Ensemble Pearl’s fourth member Bill Herzog. Whatever the case, O’Malley’s stamp isn’t as significant on this record. For one, distorted guitars are kept to a minimum. Ensemble Pearl emphasises drums, bass and clean guitars with none of the dissonance you’d expect. It’s surprisingly rhythmic, with guitars following the drums’ lead through a trip hop paced, psychedelic hoe down. Atsuo’s kit drips with reverb, creating a dubby vibe that’s most enjoyable.
The sparse arrangements make me think of Boren & Der Club of Gore minus the foreboding anxiety. Ensemble Pearl is a warm and dreamlike experience with crisp and spacious production. Tracks like Wray tackle a palette of xylophone-like synthesisers to create an ambience that’s almost heavenly. Wray is among the most beautiful pieces O’Malley has been involved in, calling to mind the more abstract moments of bands like Godspeed you! Black Emperor!
The other reference point for Ensemble Pearl is O’Malley’s beloved Earth, although this time around the influence appears to be Dylan Carson’s later interest in droning Americana. But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison because Ensemble Pearl conjures up much more ethereal emotions than Earth’s parched and lonely landscapes. This record is a real creeper, and by falling in love with it I’ve renewed my excitement in O’Malley’s sonic experimentation. I can’t recommend Ensemble Pearl enough.