Sunn O))) – ‘Black One’ – Round 17: Rob’s choice

I’ve been waiting for an excuse to set this before the Club for some time, and also to have a stab at writing about it. I’m intermittently fascinated by Sunn O))) and some of their ilk but the more I listen the farther I get from understanding anything about them.

It’s a pretty simple equation. There are two of them, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, and they chug away at weirdly down-tuned guitars at ferocious volume and glacial pace creating a noise which pretty much suits the drone/doom pigeonhole they’ve materialised in. They have progenitors, particularly Dylan Carson’s Earth, who they credit as major influences and partly in tribute to whom they are named. On this their fifth album, they are joined by guest vocalists Wrest and Malefic from US Black Metal one-man-bands Leviathan and Xasthur, representing the overlap with another genre I find hopelessly fascinating and almost completely ludicrous.

The result is, perhaps in all senses of the words, diabolical and dreadful. The guitars seem to collapse in on themselves, giving fleeting visions of sub-sonic caverns that threaten to swallow the listener like some Lovecraftian behemoth. It really is quite something, demonstrating directly the almost physical effect that noise can inflict.

Or are they just mucking about? I know they aren’t, but I also know i’d be incapable of persuading the average passer-by that they weren’t. There’s a dark thrill in letting Sunn O)))s black waves suck away at your soul and, for me, it’s given an extra frisson by the clear sense that this is, in any reasonable assessment, a bit ridiculous. Like the best schlock horror flicks, it only works if one suspends disbelief.

Then there’s the vocals and lyrics. My feelings about US Black Metal (USBM) and its Scandinavian older cousin are for another post, or better, for a comic novel, but i’ll encapsulate a couple of them here.

What makes the whole genre so delicious is the contrast between how seriously the young men churning the music out are about it and how completely laughable it is in almost all its detail. The music can be bracing, face-melting at times, and I’m compelled by the vocal technique (again the end result is silly, but impressive). I’m enough of a horror fan to find the blighted lands that USBM tries to conjure up attractive, but jeez, was there ever a scene more up itself, more convinced of its own righteousness (or should that be wrongeousness)?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve all read ‘The Call Of Cthulhu’ and imagined we could destroy the world and bring forth a frosty new dimension of pain and general unpleasantness. Now go and ring your Mum and tell her what time you’ll be home for tea.

Don’t misunderstand me. This territory is great for a brief escape, but the idea that a chap could live there permanently seems childish. Put another way, I think it’s pretty cool that they apparently locked the claustrophobic Malefic in a coffin to record his vocals for ‘Black One’s closing track ‘Báthory Erzsébet’, but how can anyone read a wikipedia entry for the same vocalist that goes like this without chuckling: “musically and lyrically Xasthur’s focus is usually not on paganism, Satanism or anti-Christian blasphemy – as is common in the genre – but rather on astral projection, darkness, despair, suicide, hate, and death”.

That’s enough for now. I intend to chip away at Sunn O))) for years to come. I have no idea whether when I finally break through i’ll find a blackened, blasted wasteland presided over by a blind gibbering god, or two dorkish schoolboys who never learned which way round to hold their guitars.

Tom Listened:  I’m beginning to go off Rob. First he makes me cycle from one end of the country to the other. Then he makes me listen to this! I very rarely have trouble getting to sleep, but this album (plus The Drift, plus Frankie Teardrop) ensured that I had my worst night’s sleep in decades!

This was uncomfortable, oppressive, terrifying, exhausting, scary, bleak, unpleasant, horrific….and strangely captivating. Put it this way, I didn’t feel compelled to play Guided by Voices or The Unicorns to my tutor group the next day after they were brought to DRC! So, I have to begrudgingly concede that Sunn o))) must be pretty damn good at what they do, it’s just that what they do and myself are incompatible. A bit like Pan’s Labyrinth (images from which Black One continuously summoned up during the interminable 56 minutes playing time) this was an experience that I am kind of glad I have had, but never want to repeat.

Nick listened: Sunn o))) are a group I’ve heard of plenty over the years, but never listened to. I’m aware of their critical acclaim, but not so much of their specific niche – I didn’t know they were quite so related to modern metal in terms of collaborations, for instance, though I had them filed away in my brain as unholy guitar abusers.

Strip away the comedy death metal grunting (which adds a layer of artifice to proceedings that seriously hampers my ability to suspend disbelief and invest fully), and what Sunn o))) produce isn’t a million miles away from Fennesz, just going down a different, almost illbient, road. I find quite a lot to… perhaps not ‘enjoy’, but certainly appreciate, in Sunn o))), especially when you factor the candles, graveyard view, and cowled host into proceedings. They create a genuinely oppressive atmosphere (especially sans grunting comedy metal vocalists) which could easily, if one weren’t in good company, make your skin crawl and your mind play tricks on you. I don’t know if I’d ever want to listen to them on any other night of the year, but I’d gladly revisit them next all hallows eve. I certainly didn’t have Tom’s unsettled night’s sleep; but then again, I’ve watched Pan’s Labyrinth half a dozen times or more, and consider it beautiful, rather than scary…

Graham Listened: Rob’s black cape and the view over the graveyard was the icing on the cake when it came to this offering. Glad I listened, glad I now understand the subtle differences between death/black metal etc. Genuinely disturbing listening for mature adults. I must be getting old as I started to worry about the impact of listening to this sort of stuff in your teens. Would probably never listen to this again but would be tempted to go to a live show, just to see what sort of people turned up (I’m sure they would be reserved parking for all those bringing sacraficial goats).

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