Sunn O))) / Phurpa @ HMV Ritz, Manchester 11/06/2012
Eh up! I’ve never been to the Ritz before – an old 1920s built ballroom that recalls the days when Lancashire mill and factory workers would dance away the dreary realism of industry, lost in the indulgence of cigarettes and sprung floors. Refurbished to a high contemporary standard just last year, this is another interesting venue in a city that is now bursting with places to see bands (obviously the venues are of a variable attractiveness). Taking position right at the front, I craned my neck to properly scrutinise the three seated and silly-hatted shaman that comprise Moscow-based vocal-drone specialists Phurpa. By silly hats I do mean silly hats – a small wide brimmed head ornament that most closely resembled a traditional witches hat sat atop each musicians head, whilst black rags hung down over the face and sides of the cranium. Chief warbler Alexei Tegin (I presume it was he after reading their biography) started off by burning something in a bowl and putting it out quick before security leaped on him. An offering to the dancing spirits of the Ritz ballroom no doubt. The nasal drone-chants then began and proceeded more or less unabated for some 45 minutes. The occasional gong was softly struck, alongside a double cymbal struck horizontally (a ‘rolmo cymbal’) and a couple of impressive two meter long trumpets (‘dungchen trumpets’ – like all the instruments here they are usually seen in Tibetan monasteries) were blown for good measure.
This was my first live exposure to what is commonly referred to as ‘throat singing’ (sometimes comically called ‘throat warbling’) or ‘overtone singing’. The art form has a long history with the various peoples of the eastern steppes (and beyond), particularly the area around Mongolia. Phurpa practice a certain Tantric Tibetan variation (slowed down and minimalised in comparison to usual versions) that was obviously originally designed to attain a mystical and meditative state of trance. And indeed it did seem to achieve this end in the present day. I suspected the slightly giggling audience would tire after the initial novelty of hearing three chanting robe-clad Russians but like all trance-based music, be it heavy dub or psychedelic guitar drone, in a live situation the music draws the people in to listen like little insects crawling towards and then congregating around a faint but steady light. And I must say how enjoyable this was – each with a right hand to the side of the face whilst chanting, the Tantric trio genuinely set the scene for the electrified super-drone that was to follow. Yes it was Python-esque and yes Vic Reeves would have seen it as comedy gold and to an extent so did I (I imagined them playing in a psychiatric unit or a nursing home as a refreshing alternative to heavy sedation by chemicals), but after spending many hours every year watching mainly young white males grapple with effects pedals, guitars and drum kits this was a real tonic.
After sound checking in their usual t-shirt and jeans attire, Greg Anderson (who was to later have a bit of repeated trouble keeping his hood on his head) and Stephen O’Malley eventually appeared from the wings in the fabled grim(m) robes of Sunn0)) (along with a third member operating a moog) – barely visible amidst enough dry ice to cover the entire Lancashire coast in a thick fog. Keeping my prime position at the front, by the feet of Mr. Anderson (I’m not inferring that he is some kind of god here by the way – I have no gods you dolts), I stood on two slightly aching legs, and often leaned on one, for the next 100 minutes, as the high priests of dimension death-drone mightily meditated upon just a few vital chords. Thank fuckery for my trusty wax-stained ear plugs – this was very loud – and in quadraphonic sound. I chanced slight nano-seconds with my plugs pulled out – oh my sweet life! How can those youngsters at gigs not defend their fragile ear-structures?! (Beware children – I stupidly never wore ear plugs until three or four years ago – the damage that the decades accumulated low oscillations did to my tympanic membrane and middle-ear buried ossicles are now readily apparent when I sit in a completely quiet environment).
What did they play? Well, I’m not exactly sure (does it matter nerd?), but it sounded like one huge (and I fucking mean ‘huge’ in it’s most literal sense) improvisation centring around material mainly off the damn fine 2009 album ‘Monoliths and Dimensions’, notably ‘Aghartha’ and ‘Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia)’. After a good half hour of trademark drop A (or whatever they fucking use) tuning put through a dozen giant Marshall stacks (incidentally the Marshall logos were all blacked out so as to presumably not detract from the overall Sunn0)) ambience) and then additionally pumped out of four enormous speakers, the world’s third most famous Attila after ‘The Hun’ and ‘The Stockbroker’ sidled onto centre stage to allow his hood to completely fill with theatrical fog for the next 70 minutes. I am of course referring to the semi-legendary Hungarian black metal vocalist Attila Csihar (a latter day Bela Lugosi), who was utterly superb in his demonic invocation as the frontman of Sunn0)), imposing with relish on the crowd his cracked and tortured vocals, the like of which we hear in their finest Eastern European splendour on the aforementioned ‘Monoliths and Dimensions’. The immensity of their grandiose vision now started to lay waste to the listeners – the super-sized continental chord changes precipitated by the raised right fist of each guitarist (bathed in blue light) holding the sacred plectrum aloft and ready to strike in unison whilst yet more fog squirted out of the machine at the front. All of this repeated for nearly two hours – such tenacity; such dedication to the heavy art; such a health-threatening overload of dry ice.
Sunn0)) are the kind of insanely bloated uber-concept of a rock band that Douglas Adams would have loved to invent – a retro-futuristic pseudo-parody of the mightiest that metal can throw up, but twisted and mutated into some barely recognisable art-form that straddles not just humour and deadly seriousness but also both a traditional heavy metal event and a chin-stroking arts-centre gig. This was made apparent by the diversity of the crowd – amongst the assembled noise-geeks there were plenty of greying ‘Wire’ readers whose Sunn0)) albums rub corners against John Cale; Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane albums; plenty of young skinny-jeaned Islington Mill-types with sleeve tattoos and ironic black-metal patched denim jerkins (some at The Sleeping Shaman refer to them as ‘twats’); and plenty of big-bellied comic-book guy metal-heads with thinning dyed black hair tied back off their Meshuggah t-shirts. All were assembled tonight to give a kind of secular praise to the power that deafening amplification can have when fused with mighty repetition. The religious metaphor is particularly apt when considering Sunn0))’s music – the monkish robes and spiritual ambitions concerning the meditative effect of their groundbreaking drone do indeed represent a form of worship. But at the end of the day it was the sense of the theatrical that I was left with – Messrs Anderson and O’Malley put on a show that is as conscious of the grand tradition of the live spectacle as any production at The Royal Shakespeare Company. This was Alice Cooper in the seventies, the Grand Guignol in the 1920s, and the Druids in the first century BC. At the end of the sonic marathon all four performers even came back for a kind of curtain call too – they bowed and applauded to the whooping clapping audience and punched the air with a sense of utter elation (my musings upon Sunn0)) as avant garde rock theatre were confirmed).
So, all in all, a fantastic evening’s entertainment, and well worth the brief journey from the crime-free safety of verdant Cheshire into the dark heart of the metropolis. I shall have to get out more often (hopefully if my gout permits me). In fact I do believe a certain un-merry band of doom minstrels known as ‘Saint Vitus’ are to be playing their fabled misery-rock the very night after Sunn0))…
Scribed by: Adam Stone