ØØ Void (2000)
This was technically the debut album by Sunn O))), but really it’s the second. Though The Grimmrobe Demos have their primordial charms, ØØ Void is probably the better record.
It is certainly one where the formula solidifies as something more than Earth worship, and where a lot of Sunn O)))‘s own ideas for the future begin to germinate. Make no mistake, I don’t think at this point you’re going to jump on board if Grimmrobe was a non-starter for you, but if I were recommending the Sunn O))) album that most sounds like Sunn O))), it would be this one – although this train of thought makes me realise that almost all of their work post 2000 has veered off in increasingly tangential directions. Is it even possible for this record to be the truest representation of a band, the bulk of whose material is vastly different to this? Paradoxically, I say that it is.
We open with Richard, which confidently moves the band forward in their exploration of both sonic texture and structure, at least in the nature of how the notes themselves are played rather than the overall form, whilst retaining the same basic instrumentation of guitars and bass. The feeling here is of deep breathing, notes slowly bending up as though being inhaled, held for a moment, and then exhaled. Tension and release. This I guess is where the greatest physical pleasure of Sunn O)))‘s comes from for me – that organic variation of note length and tonal quality, like the ebb and flow of a tide, moving at a meditative pace to resonate with the body.
Heavy metal is typically about head banging and slam-dancing. This more closely resembles yoga or Tai Chi. Or probably smoking marijuana, if you’re into that sort of thing. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Breathe deep.
There are moments of alien sounds that emerge from the thick primordial sub-soup of guitars, particularly towards the end, but these can never hope to overwhelm that sustained low-end focus.
NN O))) continues this trip, though it consists of more obvious riff-based structure, alongside distantly echoing vocals. Here the group move closer to a more traditional format, though the tempo remains sloth-like. This track is a great hint of things to come, as vocals become an increasingly prevalent part of the music over time, as do elements of more traditional song structures and forms.
The story behind Rabbit’s Revenge is that it was an early live Melvins track Greg Anderson had on bootleg, a track that may or may not have evolved into their classic Hung Bunny from Lysol. Apparently the Melvins themselves don’t remember it, but even if they did, they’d be hard-pressed to recognise it from this rendition. As slow as the Melvins ever got (very slow), they were never this slow. This track emerges slowly from the void, until about 3 minutes in we hit the riff. I say riff. It’s extended out almost beyond cohesion. This method of reinterpreting and repurposing favourite riffs is something Sunn O))) certainly embraced moving forward.
There’s a tendency in heavy metal circles to appreciate speed and perceived technical complexity as criteria for quality. The faster a riff, the harder to play, the better. Meanwhile a lot of slower bands, taking the Black Sabbath tradition of slower riffs to their logical extreme, are rejected as lazy. It’s the same argument often levelled at abstract art – rejected on the grounds that “I don’t know anything about art, and I could paint that.” Well you really couldn’t.
Similarly, music that unfolds at a pace such as this may seem easy on the surface and therefore valueless, but in truth it’s an entirely different but equally complex mind-set. Without relying on drums to keep time, Sunn O))) manage to synchronise their riffs, and combine their coordinated dissonance and consonance into a greater whole than would be possible by randomly hitting a chord every five seconds. Their art is not in playing fast, in playing as many notes as possible, it’s in playing only the notes that need to be played, in giving those notes the room to breathe and interact over time. The value of any art should not be judged by its perceived technicality, while the technicality of it should not be dismissed by aesthetic preference or tradition.
Which is not to say that people who don’t get Sunn O))) are idiots, or snobs, or anything else. This is certainly a music that you have to meet, at least initially, on its terms and not your own.
Closer Ra at Dusk features the album’s fastest riffing in parts, contrasting with some of its densest drones. At this point though, they’ve really explored almost everything they can do in a recording within these narrow parameters. Time for them to branch out a bit.
3: Flight of the Behemoth (2002)
Although this is, as the title suggests, the third Sunn O))) release (including Grimmrobe), it is in some ways not as complete an album as ØØ Void is. It is composed of a mixture of previously recorded unreleased tracks, a couple of Merzbow remixes, and something vaguely resembling a cover song. But nonetheless, it’s a very important stopping point before we get to White1‘s more experimental bent.
Mocking Solemnity and Death Becomes You are business as usual for the most part, which is to say slow riffs, held feedback, phasing, dissonance, tension and release, the physical interaction of sound waves, of what is essentially pushed air. Unlike previous records, where each track starts and ends definitively, these two tracks are contiguous, almost two parts of the same piece.
O))) Bow is where it all gets pretty interesting though. The first part of Merzbow‘s two-part remix here introduces a surprisingly effective clattering piano to the mix, and crushes some of Sunn O)))‘s drones into searing white noise, chopped and changed and rearranged over the top of their regular low-end. In the second part, any semblance of Sunn O)))‘s organic identity is eviscerated and replaced with Merzbow‘s own noise. The piano of the first part drops back in half-way through, broken and dissonant, pitch-warping all over the place, reversed delays and panning, and just a beautifully ugly mess.
A common epithet used in YouTube comments and similar forums, is that this music sounds like a broken refrigerator. Many fans of Sunn O))) have embraced this as an endearing badge of honour. But if you are looking for a Sunn O))) song that actually does sound like a broken appliance, O))) Bow 2 is the probably the one you are looking for.
Another journey through static discharge and barely recognisable recycled noise and we emerge to what may be Sunn O)))‘s most specific example of riff-worship to date. FWTBT is based on Metallica‘s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Although slow by Metallica standards, FWTBT is actually somewhat speedy by Sunn O)))‘s, and actually features drumming for once. There is also a pretty scathing subtitle for this piece “I Dream of Lars Ulrich Being Thrown Through the Bus Window Instead of My Mystikal Master Kliff Burton”. Harsh, but ultimately, isn’t that what we all dream of? This song is also proof that on some level that heavy metal riffs haven’t really evolved much past Black Sabbath besides speeding up, or in this case slowing down.
Apparently this track was recorded during The Grimmrobe Demos for a Metallica tribute record, but was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rejected.
Included on the bandcamp version are two live tracks from a 2007 performance of Sunn O))) with Merzbow. This is a bit of a flash-forward in time in terms of the band’s chronology, so I’m hesitant to say too much about it lest it interrupts the otherwise organic evolution of this feature. The instrumentation involved alone has exponentially expanded from what the group were doing on this third release. But in the interest of sticking to The Plan of listening to the catalogue on Bandcamp, I guess I ought to find something to say about it.
The recording seems heavily skewed in Merzbow‘s direction, with the high-frequency noise elements taking the fore. Also of note here are appearances including now-regular vocalist Attila Csihar, Oren Ambarchi and Atsuo from Boris credited with gong and crowd surf – as a side-note, Atsuo’s crowd surf, which he performs during most of his appearances with Sunn O))), is appropriately one of the slowest and most spiritual of crowd surfs you are ever likely to witness, and looks like this:
The live material here is of historical value for the rare inclusion of Merzbow, though on record it’s not as interesting to me as his contributions to the album proper.