Hymns to the Ur-Mind: The essential Sunn O))) in 10 records

Hymns to the Ur-Mind: The essential Sunn O))) in 10 records

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Fifteen years of evolution across the arid wastes of drone, noise and metal have seen Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s Sunn O))) develop into a potent and open-minded collaborative unit. As comfortable paying tribute to Swans as Alice Coltrane, they’ve recorded with giants from a hugely diverse palette including Nurse With Wound, Boris and most recently, Scott Walker.

Ahead of their performance at David Byrne’s Meltdown next week and with a new album mooted for later this year, we revel in the extremes of Sunn O)))’s 10 definitive albums.


Words: Nick Soulsby


About a decade ago I saw Sunn O))) live for the first time. My body melted into the vibrating floor, dissolved into the battered air — the dividing line between my interior self and the sound waves slamming the room disintegrated and I had not one conscious thought for over an hour. I left the gig and dashed across town to a club where I’d made a misguided promise to support a friend’s dive into Drum n’ Bass nights. Said friend explained later that they’d all given up trying to speak to me because I’d arrived stone-deaf and barely responsive — they’d been reduced to waving a hand in front of my eyes as the only way I’d detect they were addressing me. I left the club within the hour — barely anything penetrated the raging tinnitus bequeathed by Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s assault. All I felt was awe. A music that could crush soul from a body like wine from trampled grapes. Sunn O)))’s vision is intoxicating, liberating, glorious.

This has been a band that has evolved and changed constantly across a decade and a half, so, Sunn O))) — Stephen O’Malley, Greg Anderson and friends — welcome back to London. Every best wish for Meltdown — I’ll be there seeking a doorway to your new dimensions. For now, here’s a selection of Sunn O)))’s most important vinyl releases deserving of a deep and respectful bow.

Listen to the tracks in this playlist or individually as you read.


oo void

Sunn O)))
ØØ Void
(Hydra Head records, 2000)

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O’Malley and Anderson have always been generous in their acknowledgment of forebears — the band’s name is a double-pun on both the Sunn amplifier and on their initial status as something approximating a tribute to 1990-1995 era Earth (hence ‘sun’) — they even named a song after Earth founder Dylan Carlson. On this release they included a Melvins cover so obscure it only existed on a 1985 bootleg live recording. The band spoke of wanting to create sounds that made people evacuate their bowels — it’s a repetition of an old joke that there are chords that make you defecate and a nod to old press articles on Michael Gira’s Swans in their mid-Eighties pomp.

The one-liner on the sleeves of Sunn O)))’s records is “Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results,” again harking back to Swans’ demand for “applying maximum volume for maximum pleasure of effect” for their music which was “designed to be played at maximum volume”. This is no mere grave-robbing, however. While drenched in clearly marked associations, Sunn O)))’s throttling of power from guitars separates them from their antecedents. The band is easier to think of as a revolving door project investigating different combinations of friends and approaches to the overarching ethos. Here, O’Malley and Anderson, along with guest Stuart Dahlquist, each brought a song to the party and recorded live in a record that developed and extended their established raison d’etre.


behemoth

Sunn O)))
3: Flight of the Behemoth
(Southern Lord, 2002)

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It’s curious to realise that the band’s reputation for monolithic noise-making rests primarily on releases composed back at the turn of the millennium. Since then the band has introduced numerous impurities to that basic formula, making it over a decade since the base assault on the eardrums was the main talking point of Sunn O)))’s studio work. Flight of the Behemoth represented both the endpoint of their early momentum and the door opening to new discovery.

The first two tracks roar for twenty minutes in recognizable Sunn O))) mode then give way to collaborations with Japanese noise god Merzbow. His interventions — a jabbed piano, whirring electronica — gradually derail the guitar-led vibe, building until there’s an equal partnership, surging and retreating to make way for the other.

Then the entire lot is sucked into the hissing throb of angry machines for Sunn O)))’s noisiest outing yet. A reinterpretation of Metallica’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ closes out the release with an indication of the transmutational power this band wields by virtue of reducing speed and increasing volume to levels that render the tempo and structure of the original obscure to the human ear.


white1

Sunn O)))
White 1 / White 2
(Southern Lord, 2003 / 2004)

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White 1 and White 2 were recorded as part of the same sessions and announced that the adulteration of Sunn O)))’s pulse, the transfusion of new blood, would increasingly be the band’s direction. Prominent vocals are the obvious addition; nu-pagan star Julian Cope intones a queasy, fun poetry on ‘My Wall’, Runhild Gammelsaeter of Thorr’s Hammer chants a Norse folk song on ‘The Gates of Ballard’. There’s a similarity of approach to both compositions with Sunn O))) playing on long after the lyricists have departed. The latter song even introduces a prominent drum machine rhythm — actual percussion having been largely absent in Sunn O)))’s discography until now.

The album closes to the furling sheet sound of ‘A Shaving of the Horn That Speared You’, one guitar imitating the slow slide of a bow on double bass, the strums of the other guitar drunkenly swaying out of focus. White 2 clears its throat with 15 minutes of sturm und drang on ‘Hell-O)))-Ween’ caught somewhere between self-parody and Sunn O)))’s core. ‘BassAliens’ then picks up where the closer on White 1 left off. The track forges a shimmering phantom-laden fog perhaps more worthy than the opener of a reference to All Hallows’ Eve. Closer ‘Decay 2 (Nihil’s Maw)’ continues the horror film vibe, while bringing this pair of releases full circle, reintroducing vocals courtesy of Mayhem’s Attila Csihar who smothers all manner of corpse breath over the track. His presence points directly to the next waypoint on Sunn O)))’s journey.


black one

Sunn O)))
Black One
(Southern Lord, 2005)

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Billed as Sunn O)))’s experiment with black metal, it invites one to ask what that implied given the aggressive, high resolution roar that was already the band’s forte. Black One sets its stall out from square one with ‘Sin Nanna’ creaking and screeching like a tortured machine before giving way to Sunn O)))’s most energetic track ever. ‘It Took the Night to Believe’ combines a hyperactive mid-pitch guitar riff with Wrest’s screams and throaty gobbed growling alongside a detuned and deteriorating bass.

This is followed by a cover of an Immortal song which reduces the blastbeats and roaring metal guitars of the four minute original to a ten minute crawl through whipped feedback and hiss (one individual is credited with providing ‘glacial winds’ — who says they don’t have a sense of humour?) It all leads to the final track, ‘Báthory Erzsébet’ (again, a nod to a favoured band) in which a more subdued approach — sparse bells, amp on/off — gives way to the first pounding chords and chunked guitar noise. The vocals are hoarse, breathless croaking — the band sealed their claustrophobic and increasingly panicked friend Malefic inside a coffin to record his contributions. The mode throughout is like John Carpenter’s early soundtracks gusting through the rush of a hurricane.


altar

Sunn O))) & Boris
Altar
(Southern Lord, 2006)

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Sunn O))) was always a social experience in which other performers and friends were subsumed within the overall vision. Shared billing on releases seemed to mark a shift toward a more open improvisation with O’Malley and Anderson merely one part of the formation rather than its de facto leaders. Teaming up with Boris, a band also in thrall to guitar potential, indicated it could work.

‘Etna’ unfolds in a tumble of drums and glowing guitar heat marrying Boris’ rock instincts to Sunn O)))’s grind. ‘N.L.T’ departs the normal realm of either band with a bowed growl and shimmering metal circling endlessly. ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’ is the most conventionally beautiful song Sunn O))) have ever been a part of with its dreamy elegy of piano and dark, fried Americana. ‘Akuma No Kuma’ thrums like Vietnam War helicopters in full Apocalypse Now ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ descent. ‘Fried Eagle Mind’ is a mournful blues, like a Loren Connors improvisation sinking through a burble and murmur of bass and vocal. Then the closer ‘Blood Swamp’ commences like Rhys Chatham’s ‘Two Gongs’ minimalist piece before returning to the molasses-thick shriek of Sunn O)))’s home turf.


oracle

Sunn O)))
Oracle
(Southern Lord, 2007)

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Oracle emerged as an accompaniment to an art show by Banks Violette in which he created models of Sunn O)))’s equipment and built a stage for the band to perform on. Attila Csihar of Mayhem was sealed into a coffin from which to provide his vocals, while Sunn O))) themselves were ‘coffined’ into a corner of the gallery so the audience would hear but never see them.

This release is a reproduction of the performances — not a record of what actually occurred. What it captures is a fresh iteration of Sunn O)))’s modus operandi, there’s no dramatic escape from the noose of their mode of playing. There’s no need to escape when their basic mode is so effective; Csihar intones breathy phrases in Hungarian across the two tracks while the group spray a growling soundscape.

The entire performance has echoes of Public Image Limited’s 1981 New York performance where the band stayed hidden behind a screen and famously provoked a riot (abetted by John Lydon’s taunting of the audience.) There’s a drill or pulled chain prominently smashed into the centre of ‘Belulrol Pusztit’ which, again, reminded me of Einsturzen Neubauten’s performance at the ICA where they attempted to tunnel through the floor of the venue.


monoliths and dimensions

Sunn O)))
Monoliths and Dimensions
(Southern Lord, 2009)

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Sunn O))) had long practised the opening of their realm to collaborators but here they drew in thirty individuals; choirs, horn sections, guitars and a string section. The compositional skill, the considered yet brazen deployment of each element, the refusal to simply saturate the honed formula in distractions — creates an album of persistent revelation and ambition. For the first time, instead of sounding like the wrath of God descending, Sunn O))) sound like daybreak on a world of glory.

The opener ‘Aghartha’ throws red meat to those baying for Sunn O)))’s most coruscating loudness — it’s a cheery hello from a familiar friend, the track gradually descending to an address by Attila Csihar in which one can actually distinguish the words. From there, the album throws out its arms to embrace the soprano/alto choirs of ‘Big Church’. Everything is thrown into the blender, Csihar crepuscular croak meets another voice speaks in tones as the choir suspends held notes over the decaying strikes of the guitarists — and then it all cuts off dead, gathers breath, recommences, returning to crescendo two more times.

‘Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia)’ references the region on Mars where the famous face was cast by optical illusion and its only fitting that sci-fi synthesiser tones spiral within the mix to be met by mournfully rallying horns soaring over the pulverising guitar chords. ‘Alice’ is a tribute to the (then) not long deceased Alice Coltrane whose music always aimed for the conjoining of spiritual transcendence.

It’s a theme that suits Sunn O))) and they respond with a long series of fanfares, underscored by the deep pools of bass, then responded to by brief guitar phrases before a rapidly curtailed seizure from a tense string section. Then, it falls away and a trumpet and plucked harp play out the finale.


iron soul of nothing

Sunn O))) meets Nurse With Wound
The Iron Soul of Nothing
(Ideologic Organ, 2011)

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Worth tracking down to see what a truly skilled remixer can do — Steve Stapleton and Colin Potter converted the multitrack demos of ØØ Void into an hour-plus album all its own. The result turns the volume down but retains the relentlessness, turns down the guitar grind while turning up the hovering menace.

Previously buried vocals from Scream/Wool’s Pete Stahl become visible, tweaked to create a reedy discomfort, doom percussion reasserts itself, a shimmering metallic chant extends forever, we’re well into the record before a metal riff returns stepping regally in time with the beat. Fresh elements are introduced to the raw materials such as a breaking bottle which seems intended to crash through the ambient tone prior to a mounting hiss of static drowning everything out. Sunn O))) have never been ambient but it’s a context they fit into effectively.


terrestrials

Sunn O))) & Ulver
Terrestrials
(Southern Lord, 2014)

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Terrestrials was a whippet-slim 35 minute document that continued Sunn O)))’s interest in organic instrumentation work; a quartet consisting of violin, drums, trumpet twitter and saw all within the mix. The three works recorded operate as carefully calibrated rise and fall. There’s little change in pace, little development or unfolding — but that can be common to improvised music, the requirement is for everyone to do ‘something’ without necessarily having the time to define what, when and where thus a degree of drama can be lost.

On ‘Let There Be Light’ the guitar provide a backdrop that rarely rises higher than the whisper of cresting waves at night. ‘Western Horn’ likewise worries away like ice winds in winter with Sunn O))) acting more as a conventional bass rhythm and guitar strum. It’s the baroque somnolence of closer ‘Eternal Return’ that provides the most intrigue by virtue of coming closest to traditional song craft. Again, Sunn O))) play accompaniment, a channel of noise guitar setting deep shimmering roars and controlled spikes of feedback deep beneath the mannered bass steps.


scott walker soused

Scott Walker + Sunn O)))
Soused
(4AD, 2014)

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Sunn O)))’s name came second on the spine of this release for good reason. The band’s sound was slaved to a vision clearly set and dominated by that of Scott Walker and his group. Sunn O))) demonstrate an ego-less willingness to surrender, to become a punctuating element inside of someone else’s idea. When their guitars enter it’s like watching a gas ring ignite, a moment of flicker before the flare of light and heat.

Walker’s tremulous croon provides the momentum to these songs, the instruments act more like cues in a theatrical production creating a strangely static backdrop which seems to react to moments of drama in Walker’s tales then return to circuitous arrangements with elements like the sharp thwack of a whip or bird like shrieks digging into the mind. That’s the kick, of course; one’s enjoyment of the release will depend entirely on one’s appreciation of the vocals with Sunn O))) acting as guests in good company.