July 29, 2019

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part XVIII - Life Metal

By Craig Hayes. There’s an overarching theme linking many of the reviews of the latest release from formidable drone-lords Sunn O))). Critical consensus suggests the band’s eighth studio album, Life Metal, is Sunn O)))’s most euphoric release yet
By Craig Hayes.

Artwork by Samantha Keely Smith.

There’s an overarching theme linking many of the reviews of the latest release from formidable drone-lords Sunn O))). Critical consensus suggests the band’s eighth studio album, Life Metal, is Sunn O)))’s most euphoric release yet –– and there’s definitely an element of truth to that tale. Sunn O)))’s creative architects, Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, have spoken of setting themselves the challenge of making an album that’s heavyweight but also enlivening, and Life Metal is certainly brighter and more upbeat than Sunn O)))’s previous releases.

That said, while Life Metal sees Sunn O))) pivot, creatively, the band aren’t taking a radical leap into entirely new territory. Even at their darkest, Sunn O))) have always made rapturous music, and their tracks are often tailor-made for ecstatic psychological adventures as much as far-reaching cosmic voyaging. Sunn O)))’s fans certainly know the band’s mammoth walls of noise can be uplifting –– especially if they’ve ever seen the band live –– and Life Metal is equally exhilarating.

Sunn O)))’s new album channels the light in a way that their other albums haven’t, but it’s only the first of two such releases Sunn O))) are planning to unleash in 2019. A second, and apparently more meditative album, entitled Pyroclasts, is planned for release later in the year. And it’s worth pointing out that Sunn O))) recorded both Life Metal and Pyroclasts over a two-week period, which is markedly less time than they’d usually spend in the studio, and that’s no doubt why Life Metal sounds and feels so energetic and instinctual.

The album delivers four lengthy sermons, and all the teeth-rattling frequencies and amplifier worship you’d expect is here. Sunn O))) continue to explore the physicalities of their sound with gigantic/downtuned/slow-motion riffs, and Life Metal also continues to fuse sound art to subterranean metal. Sunn O)))’s familiar minimalist/maximalist technique is put to expert use throughout, and the band are supported, once again, by a cast of crucial collaborators.

Noted producer Steve Albini plays a huge role in Life Metal’s success. Albini’s well-earned reputation for channeling gargantuan guitar noise makes his teaming up with Sunn O))) seem like a dream come true –– and it is. Albini’s rawer, all-analog approach forgoes Sunn O)))’s usual digital layering, and recording everyone in the same room at the same time increases the energy of Sunn O)))’s armory of overblown riffs, adding visceral and tangible texture to their sound.

Longtime Sunn O))) contributor Tos Nieuwenhuizen adds the electronic flourishes to Life Metal, while Australian minimalist composer Anthony Pateras supplies delicate pipe organ. Tim Midyett contributes bass on the album, and frequent Sunn O))) collaborator, Icelandic cellist and singer Hildur Guðnadóttir, contributes striking vocals, electric cello, and haldorophone. Also of note is artist Samantha Keely Smith, whose vibrant cover art for Life Metal powerfully visualizes Sunn O)))’s revised musical palette.

Life Metal opens with a neigh and gallop on "Between Sleipnir's Breaths" –– that’s a reference to Odin's famed eight-legged steed, if you’re curious. Sunn O))) drop a distorting riff the size of Mount Everest to kick things off proper, and the atmospheric track/trek is made all the more vivid by Guðnadóttir’s spellbinding vocals, which are woven around massive and undulating shifts in sound. Twelve dramatic minutes later, one of Sunn O)))’s most colossal opening tracks ends, crushing any concerns about Life Metal’s “brightness” somehow muting Sunn O)))’s core strengths.

Sunn O))) contrast darkness and light and/or ferocity and fragility on "Troubled Air”. The band thread pipe organ into the depths of the fathomless drone, offsetting the punishing ambience with bursts of luminosity. Claustrophobic heaviness –– fuelled by feedbacking riffs –– engulfs the 19-minute “Aurora”. But Guðnadóttir's presence, however brief, melts the glacial ice, clearing a path for the behemoth/transcendent drone to lumber forth. Heavy, low and slow, “Aurora” exemplifies the immensity and the intensity of Sunn O)))’s sound.

Life Metal finishes with the 25-minute opus "Novae". Titanic in form and content, "Novae" lurches forward, propelled by its own gravitational weight, with Guðnadóttir’s eccentric haldorophone coloring the drone and adding detail. Epic-sized (and certainly epic-sounding), "Novae" boils with chest-crushing riffs while traversing rocky and scorched terrain. In parts, Sunn O))) dial down the in-your-face forcefulness to creep through starker caverns of sound, but momentous undertones keep pushing "Novae" forward until its exorcising end.

Life Metal is staggering, towering, and surprisingly beautiful. The violence of Sunn O)))’s sound hasn’t been tempered, it’s more a case that Anderson and O’Malley have highlighted the light in the darkness, injecting more captivating subtlety and splendor into Life Metal’s vast seismic suites. The result is a breathtaking, often soul-stirring, album, with Sunn O))) displaying genuine grace amongst all the grit. Life Metal challenges our ideas about what Sunn O))) and their music are capable of. But, best of all, the album underscores that Sunn O)))’s ultimate creative destination remains tantalizingly unknown.

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.
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