June 30, 2013

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part VI - Black One

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.

Artwork by Jo Ratcliffe
Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.
– Jean-Paul Sartre "Being and Nothingness".
Sunn O)))'s sound is, essentially, a colossal form of orchestrated chaos. Within you find a conflict between order and disorder being fed by palpable clashes of sub-harmonics, bruising feedback, and nerve-tweaking ambience, and the cadaver-strewn and cavernous noise of 2005's Black One exhibits those contrasting elements superbly. It is, at once, the darkest and most misanthropic album Sunn O))) have recorded so far, and yet it is also the album that drew the band out from the shadows and into the... well, not exactly the light, but certainly into the orbit of a wider range of fans. Black One brought Sunn O))) widespread media interest, even though it is the band’s bleakest work – never pandering to the possibility of popularity – and while the album's markedly crooked sonics don't make for easy listening, Black One attracted a slew of positive reviews and attention.

The increased visibility for Sunn O))) following Black One's release was due to a number of factors, the majority of them associated with the addition of darker colors to the band’s palette. Black One is the band's most overtly metal album (thus far), but for all its conjuring of the darkest entities in the metal canon it maintains the avant-garde fluency of its previous work.

Sunn O)))'s investigations of all things disconcerting and demoralizing on Black One benefited from a raft of collaborators eager to help the band dispense the malevolence. Malefic (aka Xasthur) is here, contributing guitars, keyboards and vocals; Wrest (Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice, Twilight etc) provides vocals; Australian experimentalist Oren Ambarchi adds vocals, horns, woodwind, bells, drums, and guitars; and John Wiese (Sissy Spacek, Bastard Noise) and Mathias Schneeberger bring the electronics and grim ambience, respectively.

Live at Roskilde Festival 2005. Photo by Antti T. Nissinen..

Aside from Malefic and Wrest's connections, the obvious nod in Black One's title, and Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s own mixed metal histories, there are also plenty of other links to black metal to be found. "Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)" features lyrics from Immortal's tune of the same name, lyrics from Mayhem's Dead are used on "Candlegoat", and "Sin Nanna" is a reference to one-man Tasmania-based black metal act Striborg. Of course, there's also the now legendary tale of the claustrophobic Malefic being shut in a coffin and loaded into a hearse to record his vocals for "Báthory Erzsébet", and the resulting track, Sunn O)))'s self-styled homage to Bathory's "A Fine Day to Die," has all the terror of Malefic gasping for air to add to its petrifying (and suffocating) mood.

Suffocating is probably the best word to describe much of Black One. O’Malley and Anderson had been making plenty of smothering noise beforehand, but Black One draws the listener in with its hypnotic beastliness, before gripping the throat with strangulating noise. Sure, it's artful in its approach, but Black One is Sunn O)))'s most explicitly murderous album.

Opener "Sin Nanna" sets the scene, bringing the immediate, hollowed-out Mephistophelian drone. "It Took the Night to Believe" mixes Wrest's and Malefic’s vocals (guttural, indecipherable groans and growls, backed by echoing, eerie shrieks) with a contorting megalith of a riff. "Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)" strips Immortal's original tune down for 10 minutes of white (or black) noise, with warped vocals buried in feedback and a distorting quagmire of gruesome drone. "Orthodox Caveman" is a look to the past, its more, well, orthodox tenor keeping to the band's original Earth-inspired drone – albeit with Wiese's noise and Ambarchi's drums adding another layer of crackle and thud, respectively. While "Cry for the Weeper" creeps along on a 14-minute expulsion of brown-note fetidness ("...summoned by a vastness that kills certainty without thought").

Live at Roskilde Festival 2005. Photo by Antti T. Nissinen..

"Candlegoat" combines Dead's lyrics with Wiese's "casket electronics", Malefic's guitar, and the uber-deep thrum of bass and guitar from MK Ultra Blizzard and Mystik Fogg Invokator (aka O'Malley and Anderson). However, it's Black One's final track, the aforementined "Báthory Erzsébet", that is Sunn O)))'s most notorious. Shoving Malefic in the coffin results in plenty of desperate vocals, and the initial chiming bells and sub-subsonic drone ensure all the funereal atmospherics are there. It's near the halfway mark of the 15-minute track before a riff arrives, and while the lead-in is spectacularly (and hauntingly) evocative, when those gigantic, sludgy chords come crashing down (and Malefic's coffin-bound panic sets in) you've all the makings of what many consider to be Sunn O)))'s most devastating track – transcending this dimension to somewhere that dark gods gather and howl with inhuman glee.

In all, Black One is Sunn O)))'s most avowedly negative album, yet (and here are those contradictions again) its legacy has been incredibly positive. the album’s success encouraged (and allowed) Sunn O))) to tour more frequently, play evermore interesting venues and festivals, and granted the band a higher profile and a subsequent increase in respect in both metal and experimental music circles. Black One is Sunn O)))'s most theatrically dark album – although follow-up Monoliths & Dimensions would amplify the dramatics to a staggering, albeit differently oriented, degree. At its heart, Black One explores more noxious and pernicious frequencies – harnessing the malignant corruption therein – and the album's mix of buckling laptop noise, titanic drone, and shrieking black metal reveal how effective Sunn O))) are at communicating outright evil and underlying gut-twisting terror.

If you're ever feeling a little jaded about metal's ability to unnerve, Black One is the perfect album to listen to. It's a deeply disturbing excursion into some horrifyingly bleak realms, and accordingly, it is one of Sunn O)))'s very best works.

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

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