My ears always prick up when I hear of a new Sunn O))) recording emerging into the light. Sadly, they quickly droop down again when I hear the phrase “improvised companion piece”…
Recorded at the same time as Life Metal, Pyroclasts consists of four pieces, all roughly 12 minutes long and all improvised drones, which reflect ‘the precision and radiance, prismatic lustrousness of the saturation, the elemental sculptural shapes, the abstract renderings’ of the previously-released album. At least so the promo blurb says. I, on the other hand, am harder to convince. I’ve nothing against improvisation, in theory, but I find that in practice it’s hard to think that releasing an album of what are effectively warm-up jams is anything but indulgent.
Yet Sunn O))) are nothing if not an indulgent project and indulgence can lead to sublimity and revelation as it pierces through the walls of the mundane. So I try and rein in the prejudice.
Pyroclasts starts well, with a trickle of feedback preluding a roaring tsunami of guitar chords in Sunn O)))’s well-worm tradition. Sustained notes suddenly fall into chasms as ice-wind drones swirl around, echoing the track’s title of Frost (C), and…that’s sort of it. For three-quarters of an hour.
Could I write an essay about how Pyroclasts continues the band’s deconstruction of heavy metal tropes and traditions? How the album, as the liner notes claim, generates a ‘deep form of elementalism, even atomism, and connection with presence moment, time and reality’? How the pared down nature of the instrumentation lends itself to volume and self-surrender to the ritual process?
Would this be as pretentious and unnecessary as the album itself?
the one thing that Pyroclasts is very good at appears when you realise it’s the perfect way to show how much effort and composition actually goes into Sunn O)))…
And ‘unnecessary’ is the one of the best words I can think of to describe Pyroclasts. The other would be, and it pains me to say this, ‘inoffensive’. The album drifts by, grinding away under its own gravity, but rather than the explosions and spouting lava that its title implies, the effect is more like standing next to a motorway. Loud, certainly, and with a kind of danger in itself but one that’s easily avoided and somehow prosaic. When held up as a ‘shadow album’ to Life Metal it becomes precisely that but not a shadow in any menacing way but simply as what is left behind when the better companion is fully illuminated.
It’s hard to believe that these dreary sounds were made by the same group who created Life Metal, at the same time; where are the soaring, clarion notes of Troubled Air and where is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s spectral, sinister cello? Where, let’s be frank, is the heart-juddering pneumatic fucking drill of Oracle’s Belülrol Pusztít? Where’s something, anything that sounds interesting and frightening and not just like a particularly long tuning session?
Yet reading other reviews on the web shows that people do genuinely seem to like the album and have found some deeper meaning in its turgid sounds, albeit through near-rote repetition of words like ritualistic, shamanic, transcendent and so on. People said that about Kannon, though, and that was boring as well. That aside, I can see, genuinely see, why people might like Pyroclasts – crank it up, close your eyes, and do nothing for nearly an hour is fun enough for many people – but I can also see how it’s a cynical exercise in just-good-enough, minimum viable product.
In many ways, the fact that each of the pieces on Pyroclasts is limited to no longer than twelve minutes works against its ritual concept. If they’d been given to Nurse With Wound, say, to replicate the absolutely terrifying sounds on The Iron Soul Of Nothing then that might have got somewhere; taking the same DNA of Life Metal but transmogrifying it into something utterly different, rather than ending up sounding like their own support band. Ironically, the one thing that Pyroclasts is very good at appears when you realise it’s the perfect way to show how much effort and composition actually goes into Sunn O)))’s better albums. It shows how, contrary to some opinions, they aren’t just a load of drones and reverb flung together because Pyroclasts is what you get when that’s the case.
Scribed by: Daniel Pietersen