Sunn O))) Endurance Runn O))): Part 3 The Bad Heavy Metal of the Heathen Bells

Onward pagan soldiers!

White1 (2003)

This is the album I was waiting for when starting this endurance run. I have a particular fondness for it, and I feel like there’s a lot to say about it because of the new ideas it introduces.

The album follows on in some fashion from their Merzbow collaborations O))) Bow 1 & 2, inviting a number of important collaborators to the table. Most notably, this album is the first appearance of distinct vocals – though here they mostly seem to hover over the music, somewhat disconnected from it, and not an integral part as they would later become.

The opening track, My Wall, seems like a genuine masterstroke. Britain’s favourite post-punk cultural druid Julian Cope provides a lengthy post-modern pagan poem in suitably epic tradition, mixing occult medieval pre-Christian mythology and sexually explicit imagery with humour and a handful of contemporary cultural references, even embedding Sunn O))) architects Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley into this elaborate satirical mythology, as apocalyptic harbingers. Truly wonderful words. And that’s to say nothing of their delivery, droll and thoroughly English.

“Here in the bloodless deeper scar
For here be the wall of Johnny Guitar
Play your gloom axe Stephen O’Malley
Sub bass ringing the sides of the valley
Sub bass climbing up each last ditch and combe
Greg Anderson purvey a sonic doom.”

This lengthy spoken-word performance front-loads an even longer, and very dark, gooey core of swirling Sunn O))) magma. More restrained in terms of volume than earlier work, the tone is very sub-bass oriented, murky and buried in reverb and what sounds like a flanger or phaser of some sort. There is an almost clean guitar quietly trickling away through that first half, while in the second half the guitars do swell up to fill the usual frequency range.

The Gates of Ballard also opens with vocals, but of a very different sort – a lo-fi recording of the young Runhild Gammelsæter (vocalist for earlier Anderson/O’Malley doom metal band Thorr’s Hammer, and now a biologist, of all things) singing a Norwegian folk dirge. Immediately afterwards we find Sunn O))) in pure stoner metal mode, pounding a simple slow bass riff over and over. Joe Preston of Melvins and Thrones, contributes lo-fi drum machine in his inimitable style. The timing is not perfect, but the effect is still oddly hypnotic. Again, this rhythmic accompaniment sits atop the track rather disconnected from the core Sunn O))) elements. The glue is as yet missing.

The last track here A Shaving of the Horn That Speared You, in addition to its awesome name is a genuine revelation. Here we find Sunn O))) throwing out their traditional rulebook, and re-building their heady drone-scapes from synthesizers, theorising that the manipulation of pure electrical waveforms is perhaps the purest form of tone worship. What guitar there is remains clean and quiet, a gently abstract repeating figure that bobs along the surface of the piece. Meanwhile the sub-bass synth drones rise up and fall away like a rolling landscape of hills and valleys. It’s ominous for sure, but unique in relation to any of their earlier work.

Both White albums originate from the same experimental recording sessions. There was a whole host of other material recorded in this period that did not make it onto every release. As is par for the course with Sunn O))), track listings varied between vinyl and CD. White1 and 2 were re-assembled with additional material into 2006’s WHITEbox, a lavish limited edition vinyl collection of which only 450 were produced. A limited tour-only edition of 100 also added live recordings from this era and a Peel Session. All of this material is now available via Bandcamp.

Included on the Bandcamp edition of White1 is one of these choice WHITEbox cuts, a collaboration with acclaimed Norwegian experimentalists Ulver entitled CUT WOODeD. I had not heard this track until now, so this is a bit of a treat. This is a thickly cut slab of weirdness, more Ulver than Sunn O))). The usual Sunn O))) drones are hardly present until the second half, largely replaced by darkly ambient clustering synth noise. Subtle squawks of synthesizers eventually rise into full prominence. Bird-like tremolos and weird distortion effects surround everything in an unnerving buzz. Also, a slow pulsing heartbeat driving this otherwise nebulous track inexorably forward until even that dissolves into pure formlessness.

Veils it White (2003)

First full listen.

This limited edition single-track EP sees James Plotkin remix and reassemble previously recorded material into a collage of glitchy electronics and fuzz.

I’m not sure what, if any, relationship this has to the White material, besides its name, but the interesting feature here is how Plotkin mangles and re-interprets the material, regardless of its origin. To that end, the tone here is all chainsaw buzz and lawnmower fuzz, nauseatingly swaying from channel to channel before collapsing into a familiar coherent centre. There’s a lot of complex processing going on here beyond the original recording, though Plotkin seems determined to preserve – or perhaps enhance – a sense of the room, of an actual physical space. Here, more than even on past records, we can almost feel the air vibrating off the walls of the recording studio, the unmistakably visceral experience of speaker cones shuddering to within an inch of their lives, pushing and pulling that heavy air.

Plotkin is a true master of spatial manipulation. Even as Veils it White periodically disintegrates into shuddering noise, it is glued together exquisitely and to a greater degree most of the earlier Sunn O))) records. The warbling bit-crushed high-end provides a strong textural interest throughout, but it sits more naturally in the mix than many of the similar experimental elements on White1. There’s even a place for an abstract little piano theme later on that’s straight out of a psychological horror movie.

This release goes to the notion of remixing music, which I’m usually very uncomfortable with – particularly when it comes to more conventional song-like material that relies on a fixed structure. Once I absorb a piece of music in one recorded form, I find it very hard to enjoy a radically different interpretation. Besides, most remixes tend to just turn existing songs into dancefloor-fodder – something I have essentially no interest in. With experimental music like this though, where the form itself is malleable and largely unfixed, remixes are often more interesting than the source material, building on, rather than subtracting from, the original intent. It’s an opportunity to introduce radical new ideas that then feed back into the project’s core.

I would absolutely recommend Veils it White, if for no other reason than uncanny ability to mix its complex noise elements into a more natural sense of physical presence.

LXNDXN Subcamden Underworld Hallo’Ween 2003 (2004)

First full listen.

A limited edition live recording of a full performance, indexed as a single nearly 50 minute track. So yeah, no skipping through to hear your favourite song. Hah! Holy shit.

The Libations of Samhain as they have entitled this recording, opens with a very distorted version of a children’s choir singing God Only Knows by The Beach Boys, which is wholly unexpected and actually kind of unnerving.

Anyway, the lineup for this recording reflects the recording group for White1 & 2, O’Malley and Anderson, plus Rex Ritter and Dawn Smithson, with Attila Csihar contributing vocals.

Aside from that Beach Boys classic, the set opens with something resembling bassAliens from White2, which was set for release one month after this live disc. Clattering guitar abstractions and a truly disgusting bass tone – more on that when we get to White2 though, as I have a particular fondness for that ugly, ugly sound. Eventually this meandering introduction coalesces into the core of almost every Sunn O))) performance, chest-rattling waves of thunder emanating from the infamous backline through a room drenched in smog and an increasingly disoriented sea of beards.

As I have indicated before, it’s impossible to truly capture the raw essence of a Sunn O))) performance on a live recording. It’s something of a miracle the microphones don’t blow up when they try. That said, this documents the audio part of the performance about as well as could be expected. And this is an important moment in the live history of the band, Csihar’s voice alone is a clear shape of things to come.

We can hear classic tracks Mocking Solemnity and Death Becomes You maybe even NN))), in this performance, but in a continuous set like this, I kind of lose track of which track is which most of the time. Csihar finally makes his presence known near the end, with his tortured descending howl, leading us to that most effective of tricks from Sunn O)))‘s big book of psycho-acoustic effects, whereby the sound, at its absolute densest and loudest, suddenly just stops. The effect works better in person than on this recording, because there’s too much background noise.

This release also includes a radio interview conducted by Savage Pencil (who also contributes the artwork for this release). It’s worth listening to if you want some insights into the band’s intents, but as it has no musical content, not really worth much of a discussion. One fellow suggests O’Malley and Anderson both look just like Roy Wood, which is a hilariously dumb observation – two guys with long hair and beards look vaguely similar to a guy with long hair and beard but not really. Oh well.

Coming up Next on Celebrity Guitar Feedback Experiments for White People

Anyway that’s it for this one. Join me next time, won’t you, where I’ll hopefully get through White2 and LiveWhite, taking us to the end of the White cycle. We’re 7 records in here, only 17 more to go. Woo.

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