The Drone(wich) Horror
It was somewhat fortuitous that it fell to me to review ØØ Void , the recently reissued second album from drone-lords Sunn O))), when I was midway through reading H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. For if any band calls “Forbidden shapes of shadow out of great rounded hills,” produces “wild orgiastic prayers … answered by loud cracklings and rumblings …” or are linked to the “black gulfs of essence and entity that stretch like titan phantasms beyond all spheres of force and matter, space and time,” then Sunn O))) is assuredly the one.
Sunn O)))‘s investigations into the properties of sound sees it firmly adhering to the precept that maximum volume equals limitless possibilities. As a result, its ritualized, thematically explorative aesthetic is laden with the promise of earth-shattering, ear-splitting transmogrification. Coalescing an array of influences – doom and black metal, orchestral soundscapes, jazz, free-noise, choral voices, psychedelia and a musique concrete obstreperousness – Sunn O)))‘s foundations have shaken with myriad sounds.
Sunn O))) was born in the late ‘90s as a collaborative project between guitarist Stephen O’Malley and bassist Greg Anderson, and its releases have always been a test of one’s resolve. With its original disposition built upon the lugubriously droning keystone of Earth’s Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version (mixed with plenty of other susurrus threnodies) the band has expanded its template of ‘maximal minimalism’ considerably since it began. With new collaborators routinely joining the coven, Sunn O)))‘s constant refinement of its arrangements culminated in ‘09’s Monoliths & Dimensions being hailed as a masterwork of darkened synthesis and daemoniacus articulations.
While Sunn O)))‘s profile is now well established, ØØ Void takes us back to when the band began perfecting the layering of feedback-enriched textures atop a substrata of fissure-ridden doom. While proceeded by The Grimmrobe Demos, ØØ Void is arguably the band’s real debut, marking the first use of outside collaborators. Bassist Stuart Dahlquist, violinist Petra Haden and vocalist Pete Stahl were all bought on board, as was producer, former Kyuss bassist, Scott Reeder.
The album was originally released in 2000 and was long out of print, but the reissue reveals the band’s glacially paced, pared back roots. ØØ Void is drone at its most elemental. It’s unencumbered by any overt conceptualization, and Sunn O))) and collaborators concentrate on evoking a premonitory mood throughout. They draw the songs out to gravity crushing lengths using a few symbolic chord changes, subterranean bass-frequencies, and plenty of spine-chilling ambience.
Renowned for building vast, often impenetrable ramparts of noise, Sunn O))) releases are monuments to the seraphic delights of amplification. But they require perseverance to fully appreciate – there’s absolutely nothing superficial about Sunn O))). While ØØ Void is an undeniably challenging album, it does have the advantage of being an evolving work. Compared to the life-extinguishing caverns the band has mined on later albums, ØØ Void‘s sparseness makes it fairly accessible – as far as pitch-black pulverizing walls of noise go.
First track, “Richard”, has its corpulent bass thrum intro swallowed by a distorted, indolent riff. As the dirge steamrolls through its 14-plus minutes, there are faint fragments of shifting spirits. It’s a skeletal, ethereal number, and its brooding emotionality evokes a sense of hypotonic uneasiness. “NN O)))” follows on with 15 minutes of smothered chants and asphyxiating tonality, highlighting the band’s ability to ferment the very finest leaching atmospherics. That so much delight can be found as your life is being siphoned away says a great deal about Sunn O)))‘s talents to tap into hitherto unspoken perversities.
“Rabbits’ Revenge”, the album’s third track, continues the corrosive symphony, although this time there’s a helping hand offered – a circuitous elongated riff that’s deeply meditative. Closing the album is “Ra At Dusk”, a track that builds slowly (of course) and offers a beautifully understated climactic mid-to-late section before dissolving into its final few minutes. This track illustrates perfectly the cathartic and sonically purging explorations Sunn O))) later became famed for.
There is no compromise with Sunn O))) – you’re either on board or not – and nothing on ØØ Void will convince those who’ve shied away from the band’s fearsome reputation to reassess their opinion. This is a demanding and punishing release. That said, the album is the ideal gateway into the realm of Sunn O))). It clearly marks the transitional point at which the band’s downtuned, downtempo crawl was about to metamorphose into a miasma of creative abstraction.
ØØ Void is confronting, and its balefulness and labyrinthine demeanour will be off-putting for the majority, but what it lacks in immediacy is more than made up for by the thaumaturgical rewards lurking in its depths. Powerful and primordial, it is an overwhelming experience, and like every Sunn O))) release it contains a beacon of transcendent possibilities just waiting to be unveiled.
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