Sunn O)))'s 'Life Metal' Loses Some of Their Patented Experimentalism
Your reaction to Sunn O)))'s Life Metal will depend on whether you prefer a reminder of what Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley do so well, or wish that they were still unlocking new potential within what the band can be.
26 April 2019
The memory of Earth circa 1993-1996 spawned Sunn O))) whose tribute so transcended that point of origin that it would birth the entire genre of drone metal. With a burgeoning parade of adherents filling the defined template the bar kept rising, yet somehow Sunn O))) returned again and again with albums that saw them outstrip the pack and confirm their status as the high lords of this mode of creation. From a very early stage, the band exhibited a life-affirming spirit of openness to collaboration with guest appearances including Merzbow, Julian Cope, Black One's array of noise-icians and black metallists, then three full albums co-credited to Boris, Ulver and Scott Walker respectively. This fruitful communality has also been a strong feature of Anderson and O'Malley's activities outside of Sunn O))) where they've created an ample array of avant-metal (Goatsnake, Khanate, Burning Witch), experimentalism (KTL, Æthenor, Gravetemple) and expansive live improvisation (Vesuvio being a highlight).
In 2009, Monoliths & Dimensions saw them reach the zenith of their achievements to date. Thunderous guitars provided the steel spine throughout, the music still felt like the sky falling in, but an expanded palette of instrumentation - far from diluting the sound - created dynamics and tonal shifts that further ratcheted up the level of intensity. Anderson and O'Malley had transcended the definition of what their music could be and listeners were able to look forward with a sense that anything was possible with Sunn O))). The band's stature came not merely from breaking gargantuan riffs over the heads of void-loving audiences, but from the questing nature of the music, in seeing two genuine visionaries make unpredictable and remarkable creative leaps.
Sunn O)))'s full comeback under their name, 2015's Kannon, was slight in length as well as ambition. The band opted for a "return to the roots" which, for most other bands, would be a sign that it was time to shed unnecessary frippery and pendulous middle-aged bloat. Problem is there was never any great sense that Sunn O))) needed to renounce their expansive instincts – the more O'Malley and Anderson had expanded their reach, the greater the results. The excellence of their output had eviscerated and devoured every morsel that remained within the original, "but this goes up to…Infinity" amp worship so Kannon felt like an unnecessary retreat that only the most stubborn and blinkered purists could wish for.
Now, here we are in 2019 contemplating the band's return on Life Metal. Opener "Between Sleipnir's Breaths" is encouraging. There's a nostalgic warmth to the massive chords, a heavy fist pounding at the door announcing "we're back!" I confess I smiled with sheer delight and my smile broadened as the song expanded in unexpected ways: soaring high notes dangling in the air before descending back into that familiar roar, a cycle of rising and return carrying through the rest of the piece with Hildur Guðnadóttir's delicate but ornately worded vocals filling the foreground. The whinnies of a horse, present in the first few seconds return in the last – Sleipnir being Odin's eight-legged horse born to Loki and a stallion named Svaðilfari – and sound over the dull thud of a blacksmith's forge.
"Troubled Air", at first, sounds almost like a continuation of the same song with glowing burrs of pipe organ replacing the high tones of the opener. It's a quintessential Sunn O))) composition and that core formula remains spell-binding - an image of stars falling to Earth sheathed in fire, shaking the ground and blotting out the sky in a haze of dirt and dust. The problem is that there's isn't much going on that wasn't happening in the previous track, it feels almost like they're covering their back catalog. The song leads nowhere. The final minutes offer a collapse of sorts, then it simply halts. That's it.
Detach, turn the record, stay positive. The bass guitar on "Aurora" offers a satisfying clank of colliding metal while the guitars give way to one another until eventually harmonizing in brutal grinding unison. While there's much to enjoy in the hot melt of decay, in hearing notes descend in a spray of static, in hearing the sound hauled back into order by the scruff of its neck, nothing else really happens until a final trumpet-like fanfare of overdrive just before the song's conclusion. There's a feeling that a back alley 'cut and shut' welding the first few minutes to the last would lose us little dramatic impact.
And already we're at "Novæ", the album's grand finale, only to find yet another song that hums and drones, that annihilates all sense of surroundings - but so what? That's what Sunn O))) always does. It's only in the extended coda that the song develops true tension: bow strikes on the cello push the sound back and forth against a wall of tightly leashed growling from the guitars – minute by minute we're caught in this suspended moment, waiting for it to break while anxious whines edge in then flit out of sight. It's the best section of the entire album let down only by the fact that the only resolution that can be found is another overly familiar riff-fest then a final note summarily curtailed in such a way that it brings to mind a sudden burst of flatulence.
Life Metal feels like the second time Sunn O))) has needlessly hit the reset button. If you haven't heard ØØ Void or The GrimmRobe Demos, it's a nice recapitulation of the core of the band's sound. Still, while the title was intended to display the artists' positive mindset, the music doesn't really live up to it. The band's discography embraced fresh possibilities, reached outward to draw in friends and to find sustenance in other sonic worlds – ambitiousness and optimism, that's what truly felt like LIFE!
This album feels diminished and the presence of Steve Albini speaks to some quest for mythical authenticity which merely strips away a lot of excitement and potential (it's a bit like Albini's involvement in the Stooges' 2007 return, The Weirdness, that same sense of a band impersonating an exhausted cliché of themselves.) Maybe it's churlish to hope for more than the sound of two friends doing something they enjoy but Sunn O))) have delivered so much more than that, over such a significant period, that it means the biggest surprise here is that a band famed for discovering the nuances and unseen potential of repetition, finally sound repetitious.
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