The toughest part of reviewing an album involving Sunn O))) and Boris is finding enough appropriate synonyms for "drone".
The musical collaboration between Sunn O))) and Boris could not have come at a more perfect time. It's the kind of situation that would have a record label drooling at the thought of the possibilities, a once-in-a-rare-while shot at striking while the iron's hot. Record label Southern Lord is set to benefit, big time, from this merger of two of the most talked-about bands of the past 12 months, capping off a huge year that saw the California label given the "indie cred" tag by tastemakers, attracting heaps of praise from critics, indie rock geeks, and metal fans alike, and even scoring a big feature piece in the New York Times Magazine this past May. And as a final feather in its cap, unlike most "supergroup" collaborations that either fall flat or yield minimally pleasing results, Altar turns out to be as electrifying as fans of both bands hoped it would be, treading familiar territory, but tossing in plenty of surprises along the way.
Although many people are just beginning to take notice of their music, both of the bands in question are veteran musicians who are just starting to rake in the acclaim and album sales after years of hard work and multiple albums under their belts. In the case of eardrum-crushing dronesters Sunn O))), comprised of guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson (both of whom also co-founded Southern Lord), the duo took the sound of 90s drone progenitors Earth and injected massive, massive amounts of doom metal into the equation, creating a deathly slow, monstrous, undeniably evil soundscapes dominated by long, sustained chords, feedback, and a host of effects. Challenging music, but never too lofty, as proven on their astonishing sixth album, 2005's Black One, which was equal parts drone, doom, and black metal.
Japanese trio Boris, on the other hand, tosses in a variety of influences to go along with the ubiquitous drone influence. Past releases such as Heavy Rocks and Akuma No Uta have delved into more aggressive and more melodic fare respectively, but the near-masterful album Pink, released late last year in Japan and this past May in North America, brilliantly combines the muscular riffs of the Melvins (Boris takes its name from a Melvins song), the ferocious garage rock of the Stooges, the bleary-eyed density of stoner/doom metal, and the sumptuously melodic wall of feedback of My Bloody Valentine; it's the sound of all the pieces finally coming together for the ambitious band. What's most remarkable about Boris is that those gargantuan guitar blasts come from diminutive guitarist Wata, who is easily one of the finest female guitarists in rock today.
With the help of several guest musicians (Sunn O))) is no stranger to collaborations), this five-musician unit, modestly dubbed Sunn O))) & Boris, neatly balances the slow, drawn out, primal beastliness of the former with the more melodic tendencies of the latter, the ten minute "Etna" serving as a suitably haunting overture to the proceedings. Wata, O'Malley, Anderson, and guitarist/bassist Takeshi add layers of morose chords, sounding abstract at first, but revealing a definite pattern over the opening three minutes before drummer Atsuo enters the fray with his nimble drum fills, bringing a discomforting tension to the mood. An absolutely brutal doom-inspired coda then kicks in at the six-minute mark, confirming what we's been grimly expecting: this'll be fun, but it sure as hell won't be pretty.
After the unsettling interlude "N.L.T.", during which Atsuo plays cymbals and gong over the cavernous bowed upright bass of guest John Herzog of the Sweet Hereafter, the record takes a sudden, stunning turn with the gothic folk strains of "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)", featuring Herzog's bandmate Jesse Sykes on lead vocals. Sounding like an eerie partnership between Nick Cave's dark balladry and Angelo Badalamenti's minimalist take on 1950s pop, Sykes croons in a fragile whisper over a gentle guitar, plaintive piano, and a lugubrious drum beat, Wata adding gorgeous fills of feedback in the distant background. "Akuma No Kuma" is another surprise, one much more bleak, not to mention synthetic, as six layers of synthesizers and a frightening trombone fanfare serve as a backdrop to the vocoder-filtered vocals of Joe Preston (he of Melvins and High on Hire notoriety), proving to be every bit as disturbing as Sunn O))'s more guitar-based sounds.
The guitars return on the percussionless "Fried Eagle Mind", but in a more chiming form, sparse notes and hums echoing around Wata's detached, Kim Gordon-esque lead vocals, and Altar concludes with the stirring, 15-minute, full-on dronefest "Blood Swamp", which has layer upon layer of guitar sounds melting into one another, a typically Sunn O)))-like drone adding a monolithic bottom end. Although a great deal of fuss has been made about the fact that this is the first appearance by former Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil on a record in ages, his drone sound is indistinguishable from those of the other four guitarists, so while it's nice to have the man back among the living, his comeback is somewhat underwhelming in that respect. Even more impressive in the drone department is the 28-minute "Her Lips Were Wet With Venom", the bonus track on the mail order-only two disc set, one highlight being a sudden interruption midway through by an inexplicable hint of Southern rock guitar, another being the presence of Dylan Carlson of Earth, providing (you guessed it) drone guitar.
While Altar doesn't possess the same taut power trio energy that Boris's Pink has in abundance, it does manage to hold up very well with the prolific band's other 2006 releases, the two-CD Dronevil Final and the recently released Vein. On the Sunn O))) side, what Altar does best is ease first-time listeners into the disturbing world of O'Malley and Anderson, serving as a gateway drug to such intoxicating pieces of work as Black One and Flight of the Behemoth. Best of all, however, this fine album straddles metal, and avant-garde rock with astonishing ease, finding beauty in ugliness, transcendence in the primal, and in the case of Southern Lord, will expose these two terrific bands to even more new listeners.