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.
Altar is the album on which Japanese drone and psych-rock overlords Boris synchronized their slow-motion orbit with Sunn O)))'s ominous trajectory. Previously, Sunn O))) had been joined by many individual collaborators, but Altar was an alliance in which Boris's members Takeshi, Wata and Atsuo sat alongside Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson as equal partners. That's not to the say that Sunn O)))'s previous collaborations came with any sense of hierarchy, because the band has always afforded its collaborators a huge amount of creative freedom, but it's important to point out that Altar was Sunn O))) and Boris, not Sunn O))) accompanied by Boris.
Joining Boris and Sunn O))) on Altar was a raft of other musicians, including Randall Dunn (Master Musicians of Bukkake), Joe Preston (Earth, Thrones, Melvins etc), TOS Niewenhuizen (God, Beaver), Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, Rex Ritter (Jessamine, Fontanelle), Steve Moore and Adrienne Davies, and vocalist Jesse Skyes and her bandmates from the Sweet Hereafter, Bill Herzog and Phil Wandescher. Also included on Sunn O)))'s Bandcamp version of Altar is the 28-minute bonus track, "Her Lips Were Wet with Venom (SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas)". Originally included on limited editions of the physical album, the song features Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson; his dusty twang parting the dark clouds that gather over the portentous multi-player guitar overload, granting an view of the stars overhead.
As you'd imagine, there are plenty of sluggish, churning passages of metallic drone to be found on Altar--along with ear-splitting feedback to jolt the senses. Boris certainly brought all the downtuned bulk and tonality they were employing at that point in their career. However, Altar isn't about the combined weight of Boris's sonic investigations meeting Sunn O)))'s abundant mass; it’s a highly creative synthesis of two bands exploring new ways to communicate.
Altar conveys the notion of innovative transmissions exceptionally well, while simultaneously being, in parts, the closest Sunn O))) has ever come to rocking out. Tracks such as "Etna" or "Akuma No Kuma" aren't exactly sprightly, but they are full of life. On "Etna", four guitars, bass and drums all push forward with a distortion-soaked drone, but it is animated and driven. On "Akuma No Kuma", trombone, a six-pack of synths, and percussion all swirl through a space-rock melee that runs atop vocoder vocals and a low-end cosmic pulse. While both tracks are enthralling and surprising, they aren't the only songs to deliver unexpected detours.
"The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)," features Jesse Skyes' delicate vocals surrounded by a gentile piano waltz, an echoing guitar strum, and muted percussion—which all settles into an ethereal and avant-pop meter. "Fried Eagle Mind" brings something unforeseen too in its disembodied guitar trills, ghostly vocals and drifting ambient washes of sympathetic synth (all mangled by a familiar feedback riot that finishes its 10 haunting minutes). "Blood Swamp" takes that feedback and distortion for a 15-minute straight-down-the-line choking drone, with its dark frequencies benefiting from Kim Thayil's presence—one of five guitars set on evoking amplifier-sacrificing horrors. "Blood Swamp" is certainly the closest track to adhere to the expected result from a Boris and Sunn O))) collaboration, but one of Altar's greatest strength is that it delivers the unanticipated.
Fans of Boris and Sunn O))) may well have thought the collaboration would bring abundant mammoth riffs, with Boris, at the time, having recently released the double CD Dronevil, and the crustier Vein (while Sunn O)))'s previous release had been the black metal drone fest Black One). However, Altar isn't a simple continuation of the two bands' then current interests. Sure, there are gargantuan guitars, and the heady resonance of Sunn O)))'s sub-harmonics and Boris's feedback punch are there, but there’s also extensive use of synth and a far stronger pull towards the constellations than the caverns.
While accessible is often a dirty word in the heavier realms, Altar's blend of the unpredicted and familiar serves as a great introduction, and even a somewhat friendly entry point, into the individual catalogues of Boris and Sunn O))). Ultimately, it's Altar’s unanticipated diversity that is its finest feature, and it's an album that serves fans of droning metal, avant-rock, and gloomy experimental fare equally well.
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The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.