June 9, 2013

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part III - Flight of the Behemoth

Written by Craig Hayes.

Self-proclaimed 'power ambient' duo Sunn O))) was formed by guitarist Stephen O’Malley and bassist Greg Anderson in the mid 90s, and since then, the band has explored the possibilities of sonic and emotional reward via thundering and increasingly more adventurous drones. Recently, Sunn O))) put their entire catalogue up on Bandcamp, and over the next few months I'm going to look at every release. Call it my 'Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions' project, or call it a fan biting off far more than he can chew. Whatever the case, here we go... unto the breach my friends; I hope to see you on the other side.

I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim,
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge, or lustre, or name.
― H.P. Lovecraft, Nemesis
Album number three for Sunn O))), 2002's Flight of the Behemoth, set the band's collaborative and creatively expansive endeavours firmly on the boil. The sub-harmonic and bowel-churning drones, along with the band’s patented tenebrous tones, were all present. However, the presence of Masami Akita (aka noise overlord Merzbow), who mixed tracks "O))) Bow 1" and "O))) Bow 2" and provided heavy handed additional duties on "F.W.T.B.T", saw Sunn O))) take a significant step into new sonic territories.

The subterranean frequencies of first track, "Mocking Solemnity", and follow-up, "Death Becomes You", were Sunn O))) 101 – 23 combined minutes of intestinally twisting crawls. The tracks were, as you'd expect, leviathans of minimalistic riffing, lumbering forth with maximum crackling feedback and thunderous brutality. Certainly, both tunes were as hypnotic as Sunn O)))'s previous work, with guitar and bass progressions set to a crippled snails pace. However, it was on "O))) Bow 1" and "O))) Bow 2" were things began to get really interesting – and a little more unhinged.

Bringing Merzbow on board was a sage move by Sunn O))). His layering of clanging piano and squalling bursts of noise atop Sunn O)))'s sludgy low-low-end - and then manically mixing all – saw Merzbow's contributions to "O))) Bow 1" and "O))) Bow 2" bring horrific life to the tracks. His jarring electronic touches cut deeply and raggedly into the baseline drone, which was clearly the point. Sunn O))) doesn't make comforting tunes, Merzbow is no great friend of sonic serenity, and the nerve-shredding result was all the more compelling due to the uncomfortable clashes. The Bandcamp version of Flight of the Behemoth also contains "O))) Bow 3" and "O))) Bow 4", which provide an additional 50 minutes of Sunn O))) + Merzbow. Recorded live in 2007, both tracks feature Attila Csihar on vocals and Oren Ambarchi on guitar (along with other collaborators) and the resulting ear-splitting feedback and noise – along with Csihar's monastic chants – sees relentless audial sustenance provided.

Merzbow's contributions aside, what Flight of the Behemoth is equally famed for is "F.W.T.B.T" – a song with real history. First, there's the gleeful stab of it's full title; "FWTBT: (I dream of Lars Ulrich being thrown the bus window instead of my master Mystikall Kliff Burton)". No second guessing Sunn O)))'s message there. Second, there's the fact that the song is, nominally, a cover of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Although, Sunn O)))'s reinterpretation and deforming distortions make comparisons redundant. Third, "F.W.T.B.T" was the first studio track ever recorded by Sunn O))). Tracked at the same sessions that birthed The Grimmrobe Demos. And lastly, and most interestingly, the song was originally commissioned by Dwell Records for a Metallica covers compilation; the label rejecting the completed tune. Rejection be damned, of course, because "F.W.T.B.T" is hellish fun. It's ten minutes of down-tuned rumble and buzz with guttural vocals from Hades, and, in a first for Sunn O))), it features a drum machine thumping away in the murk. In its entirety, it's a head-first pitch into a black hole – much like the rest of Flight of the Behemoth – and with Merzbow's able assistance, swirling chaos reigns.

Flight of the Behemoth grants a magnificent view of Sunn O)))'s past and its future. The collaboration with Merzbow signalled the band's upcoming alliances with a huge range of metal and experimental creatives, and while the band's down-tuned trawls were ever present, there was a clear broadening of its sonic palette. In that regard, Flight of the Behemoth could be seen as a crucial transitional album for Sunn O))). Although, lets be clear, there's nothing hesitantly of half-heartedly explored here. That broadening scope would come to fruition on the band's next album, 2003's magnificent White 1; where Julian Cope turned up to recite his druidic poetry, and Runhild Gammelsæter spun a tale straight from Norwegian folklore. Until then...

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

  1. One of my favorites from them. White 1 is truly magnificent. Probably my absolute favorite from Sunn O)) . Can't wait to read you perspective on it.

  2. Excellent retrospective. You're making me buy all the missing pieces... :)

    1. Yeah me too. Now I just need the nerve to actually listen them to them :)

    2. Thanks a bunch guys. Glad it's leading you to investigate some more Sunn O))). It's been fun project for me in exactly the same way.