Certain things in music defy any kind of logic – you think you’ve got the music-buying public (what there is left of it) firmly defined, and then a band rises to (relative) popularity despite all the odds. Sunn O))) are one such anomaly. A band that crafts layers of feedback over (mostly) oppressive vocals that draws its influence as much from the likes of Earth and The Melvins as from the early masters like John Cage, Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley. And yet the band has become an unlikely success story, selling out large venues in America and Europe, with first pressings of their records now being prized collector’s items. Before I move on to singing the praises of this (very welcome) reissue of their sophomore album, I’d like to share how I came to love this band.
I was visiting a friend in Amsterdam in the Summer of 2005, and on the day prior to my departure date, I saw that Lugubrum were playing the famous Paradiso venue, in support (much to my annoyance) of a band that had not held my interest on my first encounter with them – I had purchased “Flight of The Behemoth” as a result of working backwards (or should it be forwards?) from the Goatsnake/Burning Witch split CD, and hadn’t really been into it at all. Lugubrum, on the other hand, were then (as they are now) one of the best and weirdest Black Metal acts I’d ever heard, and I wasn’t about to miss them. I booked an extra day in a hostel and went to purchase a ticket – I got one last minute for 3 euros (the chance of this ever happening again are long gone!) and headed to catch Lugubrum’s set. They played magnificently, and I duly purchased what I still reckon is the best Black Metal album of the last 10 or so years “Albino de Congo”, a masterpiece that transcends and shatters all boundaries set in what remains a very clique-y genre. As Sunn O)))’s ridiculous backline emerged, I wondered quite how their brand of heaviness was quite going to relate to the unique black metal brilliance I had just witnessed. You have to remember that this was just before Black One broke them out into popularity and made the definite link to black metal, and it seemed that the experimental dirges of the two “White” albums were going to be something of a mismatch.
What followed was one of the most entrancing two hours I’ve ever spent in a venue. After a long sub-bass tone (courtesy of the magisterial Oren Ambarchi, if memory serves me right), the guitars kicked in and, like a musical epiphany, it all made sense. I laid myself flat on the floor and smoked by way through all the hash I had on me, and when it was all over, I left the venue lighter and at peace, albeit suffering the worst case of tinnitus I’d ever had (up to that point). Over the years I saw them many times more, witnessing them morph from the dark extremities of Black One, to the more measured (but equally fucking huge) beauty of their last album “Monoliths And Dimensions”. Arguably, this last offering is their best as a whole album, boasting the best production (quite a feat for two musicians as proficient as O’Malley and Anderson) and my personal favourite concept. They’ve come a long way from the primal minimalism of The Grimm Robe Demos, which was essentially an album of pure RIFFS (in the best tradition of the master Dylan Carlson).
And so, this repress of an album that was previously out of print (bar pricey Daymare reissues), could not come at a better time, both in terms of demand and harking back to the band’s riff-worship roots. I think it no coincidence that the only gig I saw the band play that came close to the might of that fateful evening in Amsterdam, was the “Grimm Robes” duo gig at the tiny Corsica Studios. Primal and unrelenting, it was a return to the sheer power of the early records, in stark contrast to the musical intricacy of the likes of “Altar” (an album that, for me, didn’t really stand up to repeat listens). Whereas their début album was murky and basic, almost brutal, ØØ Void is a progression both in recording quality and concept, with none other Scott Reader of The Obsessed and Kyuss handling production duties with core members Anderson and O’Malley.
In a sense, reviewing a Sunn O))) record is a little pointless, as there are no words that can really sum up the experience, and frankly, you either “get it” or you don’t, hence my lengthy spiel about my personal introduction to the band! Nevertheless, this album merits a rundown through all 4 of its tracks, all of which are very specific and unique to the individual that wrote them. The first track “Richard” was penned by Stuart Dahlquist (credited as G. Subharmonia), and was my favourite opener to a Sunn O))) album until “Agartha” came to being. Starting with a gut wrenching bent bass note, this beautiful track (my favourite on the album) is the most delicate entry, unsurprising as it came from the same hands that brought us Asva (if you haven’t done so already, check them out, their second album in particular is absolutely essential). It seems to best embody the ethereal sense of primal floating and light suggested by Stephen Kasner’s beautiful artwork (immensely superior to that adorning the Rise Above CD edition), as opposed to the oppressive darkness of Black One. It’s odd, but for an album seemingly centred on The Void, I find it strangely uplifting – an enchanting and exhilarating dichotomy that is best expressed in this gorgeous track, from the opening riff to the final ringing of faint organs that creep up on the listener beneath the tapestry of riff.
The Greg Anderson/”The Duke” penned second song is the cut most reminiscent of their first album, and as such there is little to say, it is primal riff worship, and the only way to live the experience is to hear it – sorry if that sounds like a cop out, but it’s the hard truth! The only pointer I can give you is that it’s extremely reminiscent of the Goatsnake contribution to the Burning Witch/Goatsnake split CD (“Raw Curtains”), one of said band’s best tracks, heavy as fuck, stripped even further down for the purposes of this album, but with added chanting (courtesy of Pete Stahl, I suspect!).
The third track is the most outright weird element on the album – ostensibly a Melvins cover (a song Buzz didn’t rate enough to record, but was salvaged from a 1985 live tape by Anderson), the slow motion riffing is punctuated by lo-fi drumming and an odd screeching. A foretaste, perhaps, of the outer limits experimentation that would permeate the next three albums.
O’Malley (“Mk Ultra Blizzard”) contributes the “fast” track of the album, “Ra At Dusk”, that even has a chugging riff to it, suggestive of an army on the march, appropriate for track about an ancient Egyptian sun God heading to his slumber. The most abstract piece on the album, it lulls you into a wall of sleep, leaving you spinning in a light-headed daze. Sheer bliss from beginning to end, this is perhaps the best point of entry (as far as the early material is concerned) for newcomers who have only heard the most recent album. Loud, heavy, intense, beautiful, ethereal and soothing, this classic is easily one of the best entries in a discography filled with great records. Some people call them inaccessible; I don’t see how anything this simple can be classified as such. The simplest things are the most open and expansive. If you have patience and are in search of the superlative, you can do no better than this album.
Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão