The Grimmrobe Demos (1999)
First full listen.
I’m kicking this endurance run off with their début release, The Grimmrobe Demos. Start at the beginning they say. And so, I am. There are a lot of bands who take a few albums to really get into what it is that they do. Not so with Sunn O))).
Right off the bat with Black Wedding, it’s wall-to-wall headache-inducing fuzz and painfully protracted riffs. I mean, slow doesn’t really begin to cover it. This piece is maybe 20bpm. If that term is even valid because at this point there’s no percussion. It’s all guitar and bass. There is a swirling sound that kind of weaves around for a while in the middle, but for the most part, this piece is heavy metal style riffs played at a fraction of their original speed.
As far as debuts go, this is a pretty fully formed emergence. No dancing around that core musical idea, trying to blend it with traditional song elements. That comes later. This is a pure statement of intent, a manifesto.
The band is appropriately named after Sunn amplifiers, the O))) being a representation of the classic logo emblazoned upon those amps. But that love of Sunn amps goes back to their immediate forefathers Earth. Everything Sunn O))) has ever done has been an extension of the Earth record Earth 2. Literally everything.
Earth 2 is often referred to in so-called “drone doom” circles as The Bible, and it is the fundamental basis for Sunn O))). It is certainly a model for The Grimmrobe Demos – with both albums consisting of exactly three lengthy tracks. Earth 2 firmly establishes the art of essentially percussion-less electric guitar music taken to its furthest extreme.
Earth‘s driving force is Dylan Carlson (after whom the third track on Grimmrobe is named), a man whose obsession with the musical concept of the drone is pure and sincere, derived from early minimalist influences like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, as well as the drone traditions of various world music that influenced them, filtered through the world of possibilities in the infinite loop of electric guitar to amplifier.
One of the fundamental differences between electric and acoustic guitar is the potential of feedback and sustain. These aspects are usually employed as flourishes in a guitarist’s technique. But, if taken as the foundation, this might be the resulting music. In that sense it’s a kind of deconstruction of heavy metal and/or rock and roll. It uses the instruments, but not in a traditional framework.
It’s also primitivism, a kind of primal exploration of sound from first principles. This is heavy music – not only in the sense of heavy metal, but also in the same sense that hippies might have used it. It’s a quality that seems to imbue certain music, from the electric work of Miles Davis to Carl Orff‘s Carmina Burana – a weight and a presence that is hard to really define, but you know it when you hear it. It has a density and purity of focus that cannot be taken lightly.
In further reference to Earth, Sunn O))) have repeatedly joked that the Sun orbits the Earth (that relationship being inverted as a reference to ancient cosmology and ritual) and the second track here Defeating: Earth’s Gravity, is a humorous nod to that notion. Earth‘s music certainly has a gravity that is hard to escape. In many ways The Grimmrobe Demos never escapes it, at least not on this track. In the 15 years since this record was recorded, the band’s orbit may have increased in circumference, but they are still anchored forever by the core of Earth 2, by an endless magnification of that specific aspect of Dylan Carlson’s obsession.
Ironically, Earth themselves have later moved far beyond Earth 2‘s template into a wholly different and fascinating realm of drone-worship.
As Defeating: Earth’s Gravity dissolves into a slowly repeatedly descending tone, the band’s winking acknowledgement of their forebears turns into an explicit tribute in Dylan Carlson. This track makes a more striking use of feedback as an element of tension to extend and contract the spaces between the notes of their riffs. This is an element the band explore in greater detail going forward, even becoming a theatrical signature of many of their live performances. In many ways it is this dynamic use of feedback that distinguishes them from Earth 2‘s more even and continuous drones.
The album finally collapses into silence under the rising sound of a cymbal.
It is odd, perhaps, that this is considered a demo, and not a full album, because the material is certainly fully formed and the sound quality is similar enough in quality to their early full album releases. But it’s maybe important to establish an album zero, if you will, an origin point. In that respect The Grimmrobe Demos is wholly successful.
The Grimmrobe Demos // Extended (2000)
First full listen.
These tracks come from reissues of The Grimmrobe Demos, and unsurprisingly represent further primordial explorations of heavy bodily reverberations.
Grimm and Bear It is another tongue-in-cheek title that belies the serious wall of sound contained within. This track’s first few minutes perhaps bear the closest resemblance to Earth 2‘s Like Gold and Faceted, a largely unchanging drone, but here the guitars are so heavily saturated that they begin to disintegrate and audibly shudder.
Another signature of Sunn O)))‘s music is the tonal interaction between two or more guitars, sometimes playing the same note or chord, sometimes contrasting parts. Here in the early days, it’s usually the former, resulting in a kind of “phasing” whereby each guitar may be slightly out of tune with the other so that resulting waves beat against one another generating new overtones and creating a pulsing in the fundamental frequencies. Grimm and Bear It evolves into a more dissonant clash of sound, where that phasing effect is almost nauseatingly visceral. When you experience this effect live, you’ll be pleased to find that it is literally nauseatingly visceral.
Bremerton is the most obviously demo-like of this material, opening with a brief voice saying something like “yes Raymond, we’re recording right now,” and then a squeal of feedback erupts into full-bore Sunn O))). This track seems to explore the tension I just mentioned where one guitar clashes dissonantly against the other, before resolving into a single guitar feeding back. This push and pull is more evident here than the rest of the demo material. About half-way through a different even more lo-fi recording seems to have been spliced in.
The bonus live track here is fairly representative of the sound of a Sunn O))) performance, though in no way whatsoever representative of the experience, even if this was recorded before the band took to the stage in robes and an ocean of fog. I believe I’ve seen Sunn O))) live on no less than six occasions, and each one of their performances has been incredibly rewarding for me.
It might be impossible to convey the experience to the uninitiated, even disregarding the more theatrical aspects, because the sound has such an oppressive physical presence. If you’re ever at a concert and your mind wanders and before you know it the song’s over… That’s nearly impossible at a Sunn O))) performance. It is an all-consuming ritual that fills the senses and overrides conscious thought, and I don’t think that can be recreated adequately in the home.
In that respect all of their recordings, live or otherwise are bound to fail to live up to that ideal. But the value of a live record of Sunn O))) is that they capture performances of loosely structured improvisations that are otherwise ephemeral. They don’t go out and play their record, they use ideas formed on the records as the basis for further exploration. Much of their recorded material is probably the result of a similarly improvisational approach and not structurally fixed in the way that a traditional song is, but through recording and editing, the pieces can be formed into a more defined structure. Live that structure remains malleable.
Anyway, the live recording here is of similar sound quality to the second half of Bremerton, but captures the raw volume and tone of their early performances. The times I have seen them, beginning in 2006, have been much more dynamic, gradually increasing and decreasing in intensity and shifting in tone. I know at this early stage Greg Anderson found live performance, without their later robes and fog, to be difficult for both the band and the audience. Three guys in jeans and t-shirts holding their guitars up to amplifiers and tilting them around to influence the frequency of the feedback doesn’t really live up to the seismic sounds they were exploring. So in some ways this live approach of being on 11 from start to finish may be the purest example of their oft-repeated maxim “maximum volume yields maximum results”, but it’s probably just as much a reaction to the vulnerability of performing such difficult music to a largely unsuspecting audience. Hopefully their later live recordings capture more of their undervalued talent for nuance and effective dynamic variation.
So now with that over, and a mild headache setting in, I think I’m going to go lie down in silence for a little while.