July 21, 2013

Monoliths and Opinions: Part IX: Sunn O))) meets Nurse with Wound - The Iron Soul of Nothing

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 Timo Ketola.
And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
In 2007, Sunn O))) handed the masters of ØØVOID to UK-based experimentalists Nurse With Wound (NWW) with a brief to rework the tracks for an upcoming reissue of the album on Daymare Recordings. Sunn O))) had hoped the works would be returned as something akin to NWW's dark ambient masterpiece Soliloquy for Lilith, but what NWW founder Steven Stapleton (and cohort Colin Potter) handed back to Sunn O))) ranks amongst the very best drone and ambient works ever released.

Sunn O)))'s expectations may have been for NWW to reduce ØØVOID to a dark droning funereal pilgrimage, but asking for their interpretation was always going to result in something idiosyncratic and creatively distinctive. Since 1978, NWW has been dishing out fascinating drone, industrial, avant-garde and ambient works, and the hugely prolific band is no stranger to celebrated remixes and reconstructions, collaborative or otherwise.

The Iron Soul of Nothing took all the intestinal-twisting elements of ØØVOID and filtered them through NWW's patented "sinister whimsy", resulting in material that is replete with Sunn O)))'s gloominess, but that NWW have claimed as their own. While the album retained traces of its parentage, NWW reconstructed a Frankenstein monster out of tape hiss, baleful noise, buried riffs and vocals and industrial screeches—and, of course, all of that was channeled through the mind of Stapleton, a certified (mad) genius of musical adventurism.

Case in point: "Dysnystaxis (... a chance meeting with Somnus)", a 19-minute track that fuses increasingly bleak atmospherics with subtly layered orchestrations, heightening the ominousness and the insanity. Or: "Ash on the Trees (The sudden ebb of a diatribe)", where the previously obscured vocals of Pete Stahl are unearthed, smeared with 17 minutes of corrosive minimalism, then smothered in mechanical noise, throat chants, pious chimes and the unholy arrival of a riff from hell—one of few overt references to the ØØVOID source material. Really, ØØVOID was reborn on The Iron Soul of Nothing, with the two-part "Ra at Dawn... " suite providing 30 minutes of susurrus static and synth that is as unnerving as it is utterly prepossessing. The half-hour sojourn of haunting serenity never reaches a peak, simply layering bleakness atop of beauty till the nerves are frayed.

NWW's "alchemical dialysis" of ØØVOID saw the band distill Sunn O)))'s original potion, then reengineer its components into an unconventional concoction—one in which the avant-garde accent hasn't obscured the primal base-note that burrows into our shared fears. Comparing The Iron Soul of Nothing to ØØVOID highlights the intrinsic link between acts like Sunn O))) and NWW—both bands clearly explore discomfiting spheres from angles that merge and diverge. While Sunn O))) may have handed the album over to be reworked, NWW re-imagined it in its entirety, and that's a testament not only to Sunn O)))'s ability to inspire, but also to NWW's stubborn creative vision; not that either was in any doubt.

The Iron Soul of Nothing sounds nothing like ØØVOID, and therein is its brilliance. NWW took ØØVOID and wrote their own tale with the thematic and sonic threads they felt were strongest. It was a given that a NWW + Sunn O))) match-up would produce something remarkable, but The Iron Soul of Nothing eclipses expectations. As Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley rightly said, The Iron Soul of Nothing is, "A vast creepy sonic journey, some part drone/depth of SUNN O))), other part concrete weirdness of Nurse, third part just downright out there in surreality and obscure referencing."

Sunn O))) and NWW are a match made in a madhouse—or a haunted house—and creeping, weird, surreal and obscure sums up The Iron Soul of Nothing perfectly.

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

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