Category Archives: Sunn O)))

Sunn O))): Kannon

Sunn O Kannon

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.

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Stephen O’Malley: Gruidés

StephenOMalley_Gruides

Stephen O’Malley: Gruidés
DDS (2015)

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.

KTL: V

KTL: V
Editions Mego (2012)

For those new to KTL’s world, treat yourself to V‘s subtle, deliciously ethereal drones and creepy electronics. For everyone else, what’s astonishing about V is how far Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg have lept from the niche they’d constructed for themselves as collaborators.

Last time I wrote about KTL they were a dark and abrasive beast but V has traded in the Industrial ambiance of earlier releases. No more thwarted guitars or crunchy electrical disarray. The stark atmosphere has been given a burst of warmth. These days KTL deal in full bodied and organic sounding drones, embellished with faint samples and gentle guitar work. It’s easy for music this restrained to sound forced and laborious but O’Malley and Rehberg have enough control over this simple palette to ensure things remain invigorating. The tracks become more complex as the album progresses, climaxing with the second last number Phil 2 featuring the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. What a fucking cracker this track is; a shape shifting collage of sustained notes vibrating out of a brass section, the trombone making your bowls quiver.

Unfortunately V is spoilt by the closing number Last Spring: A Prequel, a 20-minute French spoken-word dirge that comes off self indulgent and completely at odds with the rest of the record. Without it, I’d almost call V a masterpiece. Even so, it’s amazing how KTL have transformed themselves from darkness into some sort of light. If their previous albums were the sound of disused torture chambers, than V is the morbidly romantic visual of watching flowers wither and die in slow motion.

Digging: Sunn O))) – White 2

Sunn O))) – White 2
Southern Lord Records (2004)

According to WordPress the most common way for people to stumble across this blog, by far, is while searching for info on Sunn O))). Which is interesting given that I’ve only written one proper post about them to date. This fascinating tidbit of information got me thinking about my favourite Sunn O))) record, the oft overlooked White 2.

Springing from the same sessions as the more popular White 1, this marks a period where the band evolved their sludged out, droning riffs into a moodier, more experimental beast inspired by Black Metal’s weirder moments. I love White 2 largely because of the opener, Hell-O)))-Ween which isn’t the band’s most adventurous moment, but definitely among their most sophisticated. Unlike the other material which makes up the White albums, Hell-O)))-Ween consists of two single guitar tracks – no vocals, drums, electronics or other wizardry. It’s essentially a rehash of the low-slung riffage they made famous on their first three releases, but at this point in their career the band have the cash and studio know-how to make those guitars sound incredibly fucking BIG. And clear. Totally unlike the lo-fi murk on Flight of the Behemoth or The Grimm Robe Demos. The sound on Hell-O)))-Ween is so crystalline you can feel each bubble of distortion as it lurches out of their amps.

It opens with a single, reverberating note before a second guitar begins a mid tempo riff that slides around the fret board in a fashion unlike the band’s early work. The faster-than-usual tempo of this riff, and the number of octaves it covers create a shifting, almost seasick quality. With the original guitar still reverberating underneath, everything is noisy and disorientating. Yes, droning. But two minutes in the guitars suddenly sync up and tackle the riff in unison to create a hypnotising momentum. When I play this thing loud, in headphones I honestly feel like I’m flying. The volume of sound and intense distortion never fail to affect me physically. I’ve never seen the band play live, but I imagine this is exactly how the audience feels.  Hell-O)))-Ween is the one time that Sunn O))) have managed to capture on tape the live magic that people talk about. And its simplicity makes it all the more powerful.

The rest of White 2 stands out for completely the opposite reason; the lack of distorted guitar riffs. Which is something the band won’t really do again until last 2009’s triumphant Monoliths and Dimensions. Track two, bassAliens (sic) is a 23 minute ride through ambient dungeons where strange things rattle in the background and water plops into mossy puddles, while KTL inspired guitars twang and an impossibly low bass drifts in and out of range. Decay2 [Nihils Maw] delves further into ambience by balancing guitar detritus against hollow groans, demonic hissing and rumbling bass.

On the one hand, White 2 blows my mind because its opening tune is Sunn O))) reaching the pinnacle of what they’d previously strived for (namely Earth inspired driftage), before they begin pushing the boundaries of drone in the spirit that fans love them for. Many would say that it is White 1 that marks a turning point for the band, but I disagree. If Monoliths and Dimensions has caught your attention and you want to hear Sunn O))) taking their first steps into the unknown, pick up a copy of White 2.

New Release: Sunn O)))

Sunn O))): Monoliths  & Dimensions

Southern Lord (2009)

I doubt it’s possible to sit on the fence with a band like Sunn O))). There are those who find the band’s dense drones and theatrics self indulgent; and those who believe in the motto ‘Let There be Doom!’

I fall into the latter category.

Those willing to explore the dark realms of Sunn O))) know that the band’s significance lies in its ability to push the boundaries of this weirdo genre known as drone. In my Monoliths_&_Dimensionsopinion the band didn’t become that interesting until they broke their minimalist mould on the White 2 album, of which the opening track, Hell-O)))-Ween is still my favourite Sunn O))) jam.  Since then, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have continued to augment their sound by collaborating with a number of vocalists, sound artists and non metal-related musicians. They’re no longer about being ‘heavy’; they’re about transcendence, atmosphere and experimentation. Sunn O))) are a cult.

Last year they released the limited edition Domkirke – four tracks recorded live in a Norwegian church featuring a stunning pipe organ. I thought that was as far as the band could go, until I heard Monoliths and Dimensions.

Agartha opens the album with a standard avalanche of guitars, but it soon recedes into a misty ride through scraping violins and subtle electronic buzz. Former Mayhem vocalist, Attila Csihar croaks eerily over the top in a thick Hungarian accent. I get visions of Dracula deep in the bowels of a 19th Century ship bound for England, the bow creaking and the ocean breeze whispering. Agartha ends with a subtle hiss one thousand times removed from its crushing intro, and guarantees this album is headed for big things.

Big Church (Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért) centres itself on a choral choir. It’s pure genius. The perfect accompaniment to Sunn O)))’s plodding rituals, and bizarrely reminiscent of Bjork’s work with large vocal groups.

Sunn O)))Elsewhere we’re treated to haunting string arrangements, pianos and French horns all playing those low-end notes that fans have come to love from Sunn O))). When these arrangements aren’t accentuating the band’s traditional elements, they can often sound ‘heavier’ than anything Sunn O))) has done on guitar. The mix is most successful on the record’s closing number and highlight, Alice. Twanging guitars drip from your speakers in an obvious reference to O’Malley’s awesome side project KTL. A simple four-note refrain repeats meditatively while French horns gently serenade and magical keys ring out from the neither world. The cycle wears itself out until we’re left with nothing but the soft sounds of a reed section and harps (yes, harps!) fluttering away into the blackened sky.

Alice is a mature counterpoint to the menace emanating from the rest of Monoliths & Dimensions, and testament to the innovative brilliance of this band. It’s a contemplative and down-right intriguing listen, sometimes scary but never ugly. Sunn O))) continue to re-invent themselves without alienating fans, and they’re proving that they plan to do this for some time to come. If you’ve never understood Sunn O))) before, this is the album that will lure you over the fence.

New release: Xasthur

Xasthur: All Reflections Drained
Hydra Head Records (2009)

This is one seriously depressing record. No surprise really, if you’re familiar with Malefic, A.K.A Scott Conner, who makes up the one-man Black Metal band Xasthur. Xasthur

I first discovered Xasthur on Sunn O)))’s Black One album where he contributed tortured screams to two tracks. Rumour has it that the Sunn O))) boys shut Malefic into a coffin with a microphone to record his terrifying performance on that album’s closing number Bathory Erzsebet. I’m a sucker for that sort of corny bullshit, so I couldn’t help but venture a little further into the world of Xasthur.

From there I became obsessed with the 2006 album Subliminal Genocide. At the time I was working in a job I fucking hated and the discordant, seasick and utterly bleak music on that album was a fitting soundtrack to my days cooped up in a tiny cubicle surrounded by a ‘team’ of people I wouldn’t piss on.

Xasthur isn’t your typical Black Metal act. Firstly, he lives in Los Angeles, rather than Northern Europe. Secondly, there are no riffs, no blast beats and limited use of double-kick drums. The tempo is generally a slow, plodding death march but don’t be fooled into thinking this just another Doom band. Xasthur couldn’t give a fuck about power chords or achieving a ‘crushing’ sound. These records are about layers of un-tuned guitars playing nonsensical melodies that crash into, rather than compliment each other. It’s about lazy synths stabbing out of the darkness and Malefic’s tortured, mutantly distorted screams buried so far down in the mix that he becomes just another part of the white (black) noise. This is more Abruptum or Funeral Moon, than Immortal or Darkthrone.

Malefic records all this in his bedroom, on cheap equipment that creates a murky, solitary and claustrophobic atmosphere. Then he distributes it to the world via tape cassette, split singles and occasionally on cd through some label or another.

The bleakness has been amped up quite a few notches on All Reflections Drained, which is largely an instrumental album. The addition of swirling pianos and other acoustic instruments thickens up Malefic’s already dense sound and increases the claustrophobia ten-fold. I’ve only managed to sit through the album twice from start to finish because it’s just too over the top. Song titles like Released from this Earth and Maze of Oppression might place Xasthur in the Emo camp, but where those pretty-boy bands with sleeve tatts and expensive haircuts are acting all sensitive just to get girls, Malefic actually wants you to slit your wrists.

P.S. steer clear of Xasthur’s 2007 album Defective Epitaph, it’s crap.

Digging: KTL

KTL: KTL
Editions Mego (2006)

The sonics of Black Metal have spawned an entire world of weirdo, ambient but heavy-as-fuck mutants making dark and cavernous music that gets your teeth rattling. Here thektl impossibly busy Stephen O’Malley (Sunn O))), Ginnungagap and numerous other outfits) and electronic composer Peter Rehberg (Pita) converge their powers to create this monster of doom, drone ambiance.

Opening with a 25-minute organ drone, which slowly (ever so slowly!) builds into a ‘crescendo’ of O’Malley twang, the boys hit the pedals and get down to business. KTL is a plodding sea urchin of detuned, blown out guitars and electronic squeals. They lure us deep down into some long forgotten cave where blind amoebas ooze down the walls to feed on our brains.

Everything O’Malley touches is about the ‘drone’ but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just more of Sunn O)))’s same. Where that band is about ritual and pagan rites of passage, there’s something much more natural and earthy (another tribute to O’Malley’s favourite act, I guess) about the sound of KTL. The track titles allude to this vibe (Forest Floor #1, Snow), but this sense is also reflected in the rich browns and  autumnal colours of the sound they’re manipulating. Hence my cave analogy.

We can’t allow Rehberg to be overshadowed by O’Malley. I’m not familiar with his work, but in KTL he is given free reign to fly solo over the mass of guitars.  On Forest Floor #2 he toys with high register squeaks and missives that create an awkward tension, while on Forest Floor #3 he adds another layer of doom to the low-end guitars like a heroin addict’s nightmare.

The album is bookended with a second restrained piece that collects field recordings and static hiss, while O’Malley seems to wrestle with his guitar in the background. The instrument almost has a life of its own, occasionally getting the better of him to spurt out a twang or jarring shriek. With so much sound on the rest of the album these subtle moments are a welcome relief. The restrained and jangly sounds on this record have definitely had an influence on Sunn O)))’s more recent output, such as last year’s Domkirke.

KTL is the first release in a series of albums and live-recorded podcasts that have been released independently. I must get around to picking up a few more of KTL’s gems.