If Godspeed You! Black Emperor captured the emotional devastation of the end times, Sunn O))) captured the primal, earth-rending fury. Godspeed made doomsday visions beautiful, but Sunn O))) reminded us how terrifying they ought to be. As one-half of the hooded doom metal pioneers, Stephen O’Malley’s thunderous guitar had a lot to do with this; menacing and tar-black, his tones lent Sunn O))) a sense of dread that came on like a nightmare and only left long after your ears stopped ringing.
It’s this guttural gravitas and arresting ugliness of O’Malley’s day job that makes his new project, Ensemble Pearl, so unexpected. Compared to Sunn O))), Ensemble Pearl’s eponymous debut feels downright pastoral, evoking the same agoraphobic expanse without the walls of monolithic distortion and otherworldly caterwauls. With the punishing density of his usual drones stripped away, O’Malley’s guitar finally breathes, each note sprawling into the distance like pond ripples. Even with the volume turned down, the emotional impact is no less unnerving. Sunn O))) punched for the gut, and within the first lurching minutes of opener “Ghost Parade”, its evident O’Malley has again set his controls straight for the pit of your stomach. But while O’Malley’s certainly no stranger to muscle, Ensemble Pearl’s lush, anxious textures are woven with a (well, relative) delicacy. As guitars dive bomb and tom-toms rumble deep in the mix, the album paces itself like a Hitchcock film: deliberate in its builds, surgical in its execution, and at once violent and mesmerizing when the tension breaks.
O’Malley has surrounded himself with a crack team of psychedelic noisemakers, and their crushingly loud and deliriously heady sonic pedigree makes Ensemble Pearl all the more unusual. Bassist Bill Herzog made his name backing freak-folk siren Jesse Sykes, while Japanese metal gods Boris lend drummer Atsuo and frequent collaborator Michio Kurihara. The latter two especially have always catered to the more explosive, pummeling end of sludge metal, Atsuo’s manic bang-and-howl the splashiest dynamic of a trio of deservedly splashy musicians. But while Ensemble Pearl certainly have the chops to match their metal supergroup status, they’re not playing a metal supergroup—the album is an exercise in mood and restraint, a team effort where O’Malley and the rest of Ensemble Pearl show themselves as technical wizards who are far more than the sum of their amplifiers.
The result is a sort of deconstructed drone, each member using space and silence to wring out every last drop of resonance from every note and cavernous fill. The absence of sound is as much a part of Ensemble Pearl as O’Malley’s distended chords or Atsuo’s bottom-heavy rumblings, giving the album’s six sparse tracks a dusty, wide-open feel—background music for post-apocalyptic Westerns. It’s pretty like desolated apartment blocs and hospitals are. There’s something stirring in the emptiness, and even the slightest motions—a bird flying overhead, rustling leaves, an errant piece of trash skittering in a courtyard—seem to take on profound significance. Sometimes, this works more in the abstract, theoretical sense than in practice. Like so much drone, Ensemble Pearl takes deliberate effort and an attention to detail on the part of the listener to make it more than just unsettling elevator music. But that’s the point. Ensemble Pearl seem to have more in common with bands like Godspeed or Tortoise than the sort of towering, face-melting post-metal their collective resume suggests. It’s a more subtle, cerebral affair, evoking moods and assembling soundscapes that do far more than blow your hair back. Having spent much of his musical life splitting eardrums for a living, Ensemble Pearl shows O’Malley has learned something along the way. The little things matter.