Sunn O))): Black One

Sunn O)))
Black One

Extreme metal has always been all about overwhelming the senses, either through a chaotic, frenzied style such as grindcore, the more spacious sonic assaults by artier bands like Neurosis and Isis, of in Sunn O)))’s case, creating waves of guitar drone and feedback in a face-melting display of the slowest, scariest music you’ll ever hear. For the last decade, the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have been taking the doom side of heavy metal so far from those three legendary chords from Black Sabbath’s immortal “Black Sabbath”, it feels like a completely separate dimension, as if you expect to slip into a black hole for eternity. The blackest of the black, the bleakest of the bleak, Sunn O))) combine high art with brutal power like no other, composing music that dares listeners to sit through it all, locking them into sludgy grooves so slow, so hypnotic, it will either have them repulsed, enthralled, or better yet, both. It’s easy to shrug off Sunn O))) as nothing but pure, arbitrary noise, but the more you delve into their work, the more you begin to sense a structure to the music that’s as lethargic as it is dreary. It’s mood music for the worst of moods.

The duo have been on a prolific run as of late, with the highly acclaimed, unrelentingly vicious 2002 album Flight of the Behemoth, 2003’s more contemplative White1, and 2004’s colossal White2 upping the ante each time out, and their newest slice of pure sonic evil just might be their best yet. If Fantomas’s single-track opus Delirium Cordia is akin to a 75-minute journey through hell, Sunn O)))’s Black One is the aural equivalent to being buried alive. All traces of light vanish, extraneous sounds are quickly drowned out by the pounding noise of falling earth, air becomes scarce, sheer panic sets in. So claustrophobic and unsettling is this album, that you can’t help but want to go for a walk in the sun afterwards, if only to shake the fog out of your head.

After the overture “Sin Nanna”, which barely hints at the horror to come, the album kicks into low gear, as “It Took the Night to Believe” launches immediately with two surprisingly tuneful, resonant riffs intermingling, as layers of black metal vocals (provided on this album by Leviathan’s Wrest, and Malefic, of Xasthur notoriety) take the listener deeper, the indecipherable verses punctuated by wracked screams. “Cry For the Weeper” continues in the same gloomily melodic direction, in a hellish, atonal kind of way, while the cover (if you can all it a cover) of Immortal’s “Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)” strips the 1995 black metal classic to skeletal form, rendering it unrecognizable, the distorted vocals underscored by wave after wave of white noise, subsonic drones, and screeching feedback. The album climaxes on the spectacular “Báthory Erzsébet”, which, after seven somnambulistic minutes of a deeply resonant, tolling bell and some lightly thrumming drones, you’re awoken by massive chords, and the sound of Malefic gasping for air from inside a sealed casket placed in a hearse (no, really). It’s a gimmick that some might find laughable (with a story this cool, how can a record label not share it with everyone?), but when you hear those claustrophobic screeches, their impact packs a huge wallop. Like the voice of the undead, it’s pure cinema, a blend of shock rock, black metal, and ambient music, and the overall effect, like the rest of Black One, is devastating. While metal fans might be among the most interested in the work of Sunn O))), it’s essential listening for anyone who finds the abstruse side of modern music fascinating.

After going through the hour-long ordeal of Black One, a change of atmosphere is needed, and Oren Ambarchi’s Triste fits the bill nicely. The Australian Ambarchi, who makes a guest appearance on Black One, is an odd guitar genius bent on bucking convention, capable of extracting some of the most un-guitarlike tones we’ll ever hear, which bear more of a similarity to a Rhodes piano than a guitar. Minimal and very spacious (his free jazz background is more than apparent), his dulcimer-like notes bounce around gently, as opposed to Sunn O)))’s blunt force.

Triste, originally released on vinyl two years ago and now on CD for the first time, centers on a live performance of Ambarchi’s in Holland in 2001. Not that we are able to notice that, as there’s no background noise or applause to speak of, and that silence plays a large role on the first two tracks, as we’re able to lose ourselves in the seemingly arbitrary note sequences of the languidly paced first track. Track two offers a slight shift in mood, as Ambarchi’s notes arrive with more urgency, a lower drone slowly surfaces, and like a ripple effect, similar, higher-pitched waves of sound begin to filter in, the performance concluding in a light hail of twittering guitar noises. Appended by two considerably more lively remixes by Tom Recchion, which take the previous two pieces and gives them more of a center, Triste is an abstract, yet ultimately entrancing and gorgeous introduction to the ethereal art of Ambarchi. After the nocturnal horror of Sunn O)))’s Black One, Triste is like watching the sun rise on the prairie horizon, one ray slowly creeping out at a time.

RATING 8 / 10