It probably was never meant to turn out this way. For a band who wanted nothing more than to be the world’s foremost Earth tribute act and have some fun, drinks and tinnitus along the way, Sunn O))) now occupy a unique niche within popular culture. Lauded as much within the underground as throughout the music intelligentsia, they’re as now as known for their sonic/tectonic mastery as they are for their meme-ability, the punchline to a joke that no-one except those in the know will get while simultaneously the subject of a thousand “heaviest show ever” anecdotes. Which makes taking them at face value that little bit trickier.
Before getting to that, it’s Anna von Hausswolff who is, for many, as big of a draw as the headliners. It’s not hard to see why. From a muted build-up through to crashing waves of noise, distortion and tribal percussion, she and her band are as pure a manifestation of ‘emotion + sound = art’ as you could hope to find, even the most subtle of moments laced with intensity and violence. Original, powerful and with such broad range that witnessing it practically drags you through all seven stages of bereavement in half an hour, the Swede delivers something that rivals what is to come in many ways, and maybe even surpasses it in a few.
Back on planet Sunn O))), things are looking very smoky but not for the reasons you might expect. They’ve spent much of this tour plugging their fog machine manufacturers on social media and they’ve certainly gotten their money’s worth. Visibility in the room has been reduced to about a foot and everything has taken a weirdly spectral glow thanks to the lighting. It’s only the stomach-churning bass rumble swelling and enveloping the room as though it was the voice of the mist itself that gives any indication that the band have even taken stage. There’s obvious theatricality involved, especially as the murk clears after 15 minutes and the familiar silhouettes of messrs O’Malley and Anderson can just about be made out, guitars hoisted triumphantly in the air, but it’s also the ideal environment for such overwhelming sonic worship – no distractions, no blistering solos, just a sheer wall of noise that teeters permanently on the brink of collapse.
no distractions, no blistering solos, just a sheer wall of noise that teeters permanently on the brink of collapse…
Though the lack of Attila Csihar, or of any vocalist as such, is noticeable as the set progresses, it does feel like the change is for the better. Stripped back to something resembling their earliest template, albeit with Tos Nieuwenhuizen and Steve Moore to round out their sound, they do attempt a happy medium in adding some of the range evident on this year’s Life Metal to the deep, primordial doom of old. Sure, it’s an exercise in redundancy to pick out anything like a setlist but at the very least, there’s a sense of progression on display, scattered pockets of musicality that feel geared towards the ears as opposed to primarily being felt in the bones. Maybe it’s a shift in perception or just a reflection of the musical landscape these days but whereas Sunn O))) used to be regarded as an act tinged with foreboding (perhaps harking back to the tall tales of ‘brown notes’, nosebleeds and venues crumbling from vibrational stress that used to follow them about), now they feel inviting. It’s a near-capacity crowd and every person seems enraptured by the experience, lost in a haze of artificial fog and the impending crush of low frequency power, and O’Malley and Anderson have evidently given themselves over to pure amplifier worship. There are no entry barriers any more, no ‘cool scene’ points – this is just volume, cranked up and let rip, and damn it feels good to just bathe in it for a couple of hours.
Scribed by: Dave Bowes