Tag 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.

Ensemble Pearl: self titled

Ensemble PearlEnsemble 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.

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.

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.

Top Ten of 2008

What better way to kick off this blog, then to recap your humble author’s top ten for 2008?

During 2007 I was all about exploring the weirder and noisier side of the musical spectrum. However, 2008 heralded a return to the joy of…well…actual song writing. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any blackened pits of noise in the following list of favourite albums released in 2008.

Bloc Party – Intimacy (Wichita/Vice)

bloc-party

I’m not gonna’ make any bones about my love of Bloc Party’s pop. If it makes you feel tough than go ahead and tease the band for being a success. Deep down you know Bloc Party channel the best of British post punk from the 80s and give it a light coat of poptastic plastic without losing their balls. They can write a hook like nobody’s business and then, in the blink of an eye kick your ass with a rhythmic, effects laden freak-out. Another gem from an exciting act flirting with the mainstream.

Fuck Buttons – Street Horrsing (ATP Recordings)

fuck-buttonsWhere the fuck (pardon the pun) did these guys come from? Skull crushing electronic drone and tribal drums, that waltz with music box melodies and Fischer Price screams. It’s heavy as fuck, but somehow it conjures up a kaleidoscope of sunflowers, My Little Ponies and Rothko. I’ve played this record to the bone, and their performance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Mt Buller was mind blowing.

Foals – Antidotes (Warner Music/Transgressive Records)
foals_antidotesReading through Mojo one day I noticed a tiny blurb about Foals in a list of ‘up and comers’. The raggedy looking kids in the accompanying photo intrigued me so I picked up a copy of this, their debut album and freaked the fuck out. The rhythm section is all reggae, ska and dub jams but the intricate and multi layered guitar harmonies are the bastard sons of some bong-misted (dare I say it) math rock outfit. It’s dreamy but danceable, somewhat earnest, but oh so fun.

Deerhunter – Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. (Kranky)
deerhunterI love a band that evolves over the course of time, and on their third release Deerhunter steer further away from their jangly noise beginnings and deeper into 60s pop. Albeit a slightly obtuse take on 60s pop, where the sun peeks out through passing clouds, but its catchy and hummable nonetheless. It’s also a major feat that Microcastles was released with a second disc of material, Weird Era Cont. that eclipses the tunes on the original album.

Sunn O))) – Domkirke (Southern Lord)
sunno_domkirkeThis amazing live, limited addition, vinyl only album was a true highlight of 2008. Recorded in a Norwegian cathedral, and featuring Earth’s Steve Moore on organ, Domkirke takes the surreal and meditative nature of Sunn O))) to a new place. Cloaks donned, and dry ice aplenty, OMally and Anderson continue to replace the guitar with whatever else they can find to conjure the low-end frequencies they cherish. Shifting horns, vibrating bass, organs and electronic squall are given plenty of room to bathe in the cathedral’s acoustics. The guitars, when they do arise, are reminiscent of the atonal twang OMally plays with in his side project KTL. The end result is a much warmer and mysterious Sunn O))) than you might be used to.

Earth – The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (Southern Lord)
earthSpeaking of Earth, this gorgeous album fell under the radar upon its release. Although it continues the desert and tumbleweeds theme of its predecessor, 2005’s Hex, the arrangements on Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull are nowhere near as sparse. A broader scope of instruments and guitar sounds makes for a much fuller sound. Achingly slow, totally lush; this leaves their early drone records for dead.

Snowman – The Horse, the Rat and the Swan (Dot Dash Recordings)
snowmanThe Cramps have mated with the Birthday Party and produced Aussie band Snowman. The group’s third album is their strongest to date. Dark, brooding and violent rock that twists and turns where you least expect it. Even their ‘ballads’ are threatening. The first few tracks are relentless, but the ride smooths out into a creepy trip through a midnight swampland. Forget The Horrors, turn up Snowman.

Gojira – The way of all flesh (Listenable Records)
gojiraThis is my first foray into French metal band, Gojira and I’m completely hooked. It’s awesome to find a metal band that’s NOT banging on about the typical metal topics, Gojira are passionate environmentalists and they’re pissed off about the state of the earth. At times they have the powerful groove of classic Pantera, sometimes they get all technical like Meshuggah, but the dual guitar harmonies also give their sound an old school flavour. Awesome driving music.

Lightspeed Champion – Falling off the Lavender Bridge (Domino Recordings)
lightspeedI know little about Dev Hynes’ much-hyped previous band The Testicicles. I picked up his latest project, Lightspeed Champion based on a favourable review and discovered a real gem. The folk-tinged tunes are quirky in a Pavement way, and his geeky, self-conscious lyrics are endearing. He sights Korn, Hip Hop and Crowded House as sources of inspiration which makes me desperate to hear what he comes up with next.

Gang Gang Dance – Saint Dymphna (Warp Records)
ganggangI was introduced to Gang Gang Dance only recently and am currently devouring this album and their back catalogue. Imagine the sound of two cars crashing; one being New York’s Hip Hop scene, and the other New Yorks 80’s No Wave scene. Throw in some world music and that’s kinda what Gang Gang Dance sound like. Oh, and sometimes they sound like Coctaeu Twins. Fucking amazing.

Honourable mentions
AutechreQuaristice (Warp)
Kings of LeonOnly by Night (RCA Records)
Genghis TronBoard up the House (Relapse)
Sonic YouthSY8 Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth (SYR)
Atlas SoundLet the Blind Lead Those who can see but cannot Feel (Kranky)