July 29, 2013

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part X - Dømkirke

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.

Painting Tania Stene.

Dømkirke was recorded during 2007's Borealis Festival at the Bergen Cathedral, Norway (Cathedral is domkirke in Norwegian). With the church dating back to the 12th century, you could rightly say that Dømkirke is Sunn O)))'s most sacramental, and in turn, most ritualized release; or that it’s an ungodly display of its live prowess. Either way, the fans in attendance were treated to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Originally pressed on double vinyl, with stunning artwork from Norwegian visual artist Tania Stene, Dømkirke's initial LP release came with the caveat that it was a one-time issue. But thankfully, with Sunn O)))'s Bandcamp reissues, the album's appearance is another Elder-godsend for Sunn O))) fans looking to complete their collections.

Dømkirke is, of course, notable for being recorded in Bergen. The town itself is legendary enough in metal circles for the misdeeds that occurred there in the '90s, and Sunn O)))'s own investigations into hellish and corrupting noise are well established. However, if you add into that the transcendental promise of Sunn O)))'s low-pitched sonics, the clear link between Sunn O)))'s earth-quaking meditations and religious awe, then you've a match made in heaven (or hell – take your pick).

Unlike previous Sunn O))) albums, Dømkirke was a commissioned work. The organizers of the Borealis Festival asked Sunn O))) to write a suite that kept in mind gothic and Gregorian hymns, and all manner of grim tidings from the Middle Ages. The local Bergen religious community wasn't entirely enthusiastic at Sunn O)))'s appearance in their sacred hall, but really, you couldn't have asked for a more fitting band to play the venue. Sunn O)))'s subterranean harmonics have always come loaded with gloom, doom and a reverence for the transformative power of sound, and as for Gregorian hymns, the band's entire oeuvre is stacked with firmamental mystery, and sub-terrestrial wickedness.

Certainly, the four 15-minute plus tracks on Dømkirke are loaded with all the solemnity the occasion offered. The line-up for the album sees Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley (guitars) joined by long-time collaborator and enigmatic Hungarian henchman Attila Csihar (vocals). Oslo-based noise-maker Lasse Marhaug is on electronics, Steve Moore’s on the organ and trombone, and Tos Nieuwenhuizen dispenses the Moog(ness).

Moore's church-organ drone interweaves with Csihar's vocals on first track "Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds?". Csihar alternates between baritone growls and wide-throated Gregorian yowls, before the rest of the band turns up on "Cannon". On that track, Anderson and O'Malley's power chords come crashing down atop Marnhaug's electronics, and his buried vocals and trombone. This assault is perhaps in recognition of 1665's Battle of Vagen, which resulted in a cannonball in the cathedral's exterior wall, embedded there to this day.

As with Sunn O)))'s past endeavors, Dømkirke toys with architectures of sound, but here, Sunn O))) is able to combine that with the architecture of the church itself. Accordingly, the melee of feedbacking guitars and vocal howls combine into a saturating mass on "Cymatics" – reverberating off the church's stone-walled interior – while "Masks of the Atmospheres" sees Sunn O))) winding down, the echoes conjuring the aftermath of destruction and chaos.

With Sunn O))) aiming to reflect the aesthetics of Bergen Cathedral, and combine that with a devout darkness and, no doubt, a nod to Christian hypocrisy, the album makes full use of the band's armaments. Monolithic heaviness is combined with sophisticated compositions (albeit still dirty, downtempo and downtuned), bringing plenty of ceremonial grandeur – especially where the songs build layers upon the reverential space of the church itself.

Dømkirke provides more evidence that to truly appreciate Sunn O))) you need to stand front and centre, with sub-harmonics drilling into your psyche. That's superbly exhibited at the end of the album, in the pause between the band ceasing to play, and the audience returning to their senses, and finding the strength to applaud. Those who believe that seeing Sunn O))) live can be akin to a spiritual experience can certainly point to this album as proof. Lord knows what fans would have made of the Dømkirke experience in person, but for the rest of us, the album's explorations of texture, volume, and time reaffirm, yet again, that Sunn O))) taps straight into the eternal.

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

  1. Thanks for these reviews Craig. They are like rediscovering Sunn O))) all over again. Each review makes me want to listen to the albums that I don't listen to enough.

  2. You're extremely welcome, Aaron. Thanks for reading them! It's a total rediscovery for me as well, I'm still finding a lot I missed.