February 4, 2014

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part XIV - Sunn O))) & Ulver - Terrestrials

Written by Craig Hayes.

A portrait of our sun, captured in the wavelength of hydrogen alpha light © Alan Friedman

I’m going against my own better judgment here. One thing I’d never normally attempt is to review prominent sonic adventurers like Sunn O))) or Ulver after only a few scant days of ingesting their separate wares, let alone tackle a collaborative release from both. Independently, Sunn O))) and Ulver are experts at crafting albums that reveal layers of nuance via weeks of listening. Like all great works of art--whatever their medium--both bands’ expressions require patience, so your appreciation of the often subliminal discoveries therein can settle. 

Yet, here I am. Writing about Sunn O))) and Ulver’s new joint release, Terrestrials, after having the highly anticipated album for less than a week. Still, while I’d generally wait until my impressions have untangled before writing about an album of such magnitude, as Terrestrials surely is, I felt in this case that immediacy and spontaneity were called for. Because Terrestrials’ own foundations are built on impulse too.

Norway-based Ulver are rightly renowned as genre-defying luminaries, with acclaimed black metal, neo-classical, conceptual, electronic, and soundtrack works under their belt. Sunn O))), as we all know, are wielders of the stretched-to-infinity riff, and their variegated pressure-wave exploits are similarly revered. Both are master-craftsmen of the bohemian and unorthodox, and both have worked jointly with many metal and experimental artists of note in the past. However, the prospect of Sunn O))) and Ulver reconnoitring new points of interest together--after successfully merging on the track “CUTWOOeD”, from Sunn O)))’s 2003’s album White1--is a dream collaboration for fans of intrepid sonic mapping.

That dream was kick-started back in August 2008, with Sunn O))) joining Ulver at their Crystal Canyon studios in Oslo, to record three live improvised pieces--working from evening till dawn. With Ulver adding their radiance to Sunn O)))’s dark and mangling brew of guitar and bass drones, over the next four years Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley and Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg would periodically revisit the recordings to add further ingredients--such as orchestrations from guests, including Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Rønnekleiv (viola and violin) and Stig Espen Hundsnes (trumpet).  

And finally, with Sunn O))) and Ulver being ever mindful of retaining the original album session’s sense of spontaneity, Terrestrials is here. In keeping with its intended spirit, roiling energy rolls through unscripted drone on aptly titled opener "Let There Be Light”; the track’s 11 minutes of fathomless guitar and bass rumbles building to a (dawn-breaking-over-the-fjords) crescendo, where effects, brass, and percussion break through, bringing the hope of morning, and rays of light. “Western Horn” sees eerie violins run over bass-heavy tides, perfectly channeling the anticipated sculpting of deep, detailed, and formidable sound. However, best of all is “Eternal Return”. This final track sees baritone intonations from Rygg set in a classically moulded midsection, while weeping, dust-bowl violins weave tendrils throughout the rest of the 15 haunting and minimalist minutes--until the track is sucked into a black hole for a stark finish. 

There’s no doubt that Terrestrials exceeds the sky-high expectations surrounding its release. Played loudly, it’s the addition of volume + volume that’ll lead you to best appreciate Terrestrials’ truly impressive heights, depths, and girth--as well as recognising just how many shades and tones of noise both beautiful and grim are to be found. Sunn O)))’s continued explorations of the dimensions of drone and properties of sound bring their expected psychological and physiological weight. Yet, Ulver are here to layer on their distinctive sense of dramatic unease, which brings essential elements of pathos, and those first glimmers of sunrise, to an album that (for all its sonic minimalism) leaves a maximal emotional imprint. 

Lord knows what I’ll think of Terrestrials in a month--when I’ve had even more time to sink into its fathoms. However, after a week’s listening, it’s abundantly clear that Terrestrials is everything I/you/we could have hoped for from a collaboration between two titans of richly rewarding avant-garde artistry. The long wait is over, and the result is, unquestionably, breathtaking. Terrestrials is pure bliss. 

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The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

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