Jeez, it’s been a month since I did one of these. Kind of a busy month mind you. Here we are though.
White2 you say? White not? Just white we’re here.
Right off the bat (out of) Hell-O)))-Ween is a sludgy jam straight out of the band’s basic mold, but it has that murky weirdness to it that White1 introduced. This track is compositionally the least experimental of the White era, and as such it’s hard to say much about it. But texture and context are, as ever, everything.
White2 is less of a deviation from the norm than White1, but it actually moves the band further towards the future. If you’ll allow me to indulge myself, the great Robert Fripp has described making new music in terms of “reinventing the wheel”.
“You begin with a wheel. At the end of a long process, you have a wheel. And in between is pain.”
I like this notion. It describes the uncomfortable position between two well-defined forms. Sunn O)))‘s approach to reinventing the wheel has largely been to throw shit at the wall and see what sticks. In the case of the White albums, this was a surprisingly literal and naked process, but one executed with great restraint. The very name White contrasts with the overwhelming sense of darkness the band presented on their earliest works, suggesting a desire to build from the ground up, from a blank page. The resulting tracks are largely “airier”, lower in density and volume than the earlier canon.
That said, Sunn O)))‘s reason for being is exploration of tone, and these records do not flinch from that course. In some ways this bent becomes more obvious in a stark presentation such as this.
And so it is with weary ears and muscle tension that we come to bassAliens, an unnervingly abstract, slithering monster of a track. There is a repeating guitar figure that just kind of is, hovering, still and unmoving for the duration. It goes nowhere. It has nowhere to go. Over this though, a bass guitar, apparently fed through a DOD Buzz Box, belches, gurgles, coughs and sputters around with little discernible intent, edging increasingly towards a complete breakdown of sound. Eventually, this tone is reduced to nothing but the noise of a broken pedal, digitally shredding holes of sheer nothingness.
Rounding out White2 are the two Decay tracks, in reverse order. Decay2 [Nihil’s Maw] appeared on the CD version I have, and is largely notable for its addition of a new vocalist, Attila Csihar of Mayhem fame. This is a massive landmark in Sunn O)))‘s history because moving forward, he has been the primary focus of the live show, as well as the centre point of a lot of album material. Here he uses his incredibly resonant vocal cords to recite words from the ancient text of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam, over a howling icy wind. Over time the voice forms the centre of the track, its own raw and primordial form of drone, reminiscent of throat singing and ancient chants. It doesn’t matter what is being said so much as the intonation. The voice as instrument. By the end, the only instrument, multiple layers overlapping one another into oblivion.
Decay1 [The Symptoms of Kali-yuga] is more of that, but the voice is much clearer, alarmingly so. Csihar’s voice here is more direct, more intimate, more up-front in the mix than on Decay2. Either way, these tracks lay so much groundwork here that they might be the most important shift since the band’s Grimmrobe Demos, as we shall later see/hear.
CroMonolithic remixes for an Iron Age (2004)
First full listen.
This isn’t really a Sunn O))) record proper, it’s, as you might have guessed from the title, an EP consisting of two remixes. Japanese noise pioneer Merzbow, who provided a Sunn O))) remix on Flight of the Behemoth, has the favour returned in a sense with a 2003 remix of Frog.
There are low feedback drones, and Merzbow‘s typical blasts of searing white noise, but appropriately enough, the band focus on the former. There are skips and jumps and other digital artifacts, but Catch 22 (Surrender Or Die) is for the bulk of its runtime a pleasantly organic continuous drone upon which the more dissonant elements scratch and wear away the surfaces like acid.
Rule the Divine (Mysteria Caelestis Mugivi) is rather unsurprisingly a remix of a classic Earth 2 track, the incredibly named Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine. This version of Rule the Divine uses the original multitrack recordings to add new dynamic elements and a general icycrosswindification of the tone. Here they embrace that weird warping effect of time-stretched sound to give the guitars a really dirty, digital feel
The great thing about the new dynamics here is that they give notes time to breathe and decay into cold nothingness where the original mix was just one big swampy mess. The track shifts gears a couple of times, from the quieter dark ambient side of things, up to full-bore tube-burning grit, and back again. Wonderful.
First full listen.
Okay, so at this point there really is very little to say about Sunn O))), I think, that I haven’t already said. I sort of zoned out while I was listening to this one.
This is a reasonably good live set, heavily drawing from White1 and 2, though perhaps unfortunately leaning too heavily in favour of their core material.
Of note here however are a couple of tracks that would be reworked into Black One, which is going to be a fun write-up, let me tell you.
In the absence of anything substantial to talk about, I guess I’ll just waffle on a little about aesthetic.
So the Sunn O))) thing is pretentious right? Possibly. But it’s not the emperor’s new clothes. I don’t think anyone who really gets and enjoys Sunn O))) believes there’s some true mystical meaning behind any of it, that it opens up the doors of perception and peers into the great beyond. No. I think the people who like Sunn O))) like them for the same reason others don’t like them. The texture, the sound, the mass of the thing, the physicality, the structure, the dynamics. Yes, it’s some dudes playing guitars really slowly and really loudly, and their dressed in monastic robes, and there’s smog everywhere, and there’s a dude in a mask and a burlap sack screaming and chanting and kind of just winging it.
But it’s not so much a matter of the empirical value of it, as the enjoyment one gets from that experience.
There’s a thing that comes up every few years in music, where it’s all about stripped-down, “look at us, we’re just like you” kind of deal. But that’s so fucking false. That aspect of the punk spirit, to deny theatricality while engaging in such an absurdly theatrical practice as getting up on platform and playing amplified instruments and singing songs about feelings… It’s so fucking false it makes me angry.
Not that there’s anything wrong with just wanting to be casual about things, getting on stage in a jeans and t-shirt and just playing your songs. I have no problem with that at all. I just have a problem with the idea that that’s more honest, more true, more real. It isn’t.
And this hypocrisy is rampant. There are countless rock and metal bands who have huge back lines of amps, of which most are dummy amps. You don’t need a huge stack of amps to make rock music work in a modern large venue, but it’s part of the rock and roll thing. It’s all that masculine thing of rock and roll, waving your dick around and beating your chest like a gorilla. That’s fine. I mean, it’s a shitty thing to think that that’s manhood today, but hey, at least be honest about it. Steve Vai playing the guitar really fast is not manly. It’s knitting. It’s typing. It’s feminine and delicate.
That’s something I love about Rush actually. Geddy Lee doesn’t use on-stage amplification anymore. Instead of having prop-amps feeding this ridiculous long-haired denim-wearing passion for authenticity, he stands in front of three tumble dryers, or three rotisserie chicken cookers.
Why is there any need to appeal to the authentic anyway? Because it means you’re still true to your roots? I don’t know.
Sunn O)))‘s amp stacks are real, and they’re kind of the entire point of the show. Does that make them less pretentious than Slayer? Probably.
Sunn O)))‘s live performances are ritualistic and touch on notions of primitivism, of early man, of early primal religions. The monastic aspect is apt. It’s a dedication to the ritual, the thing of it all. It’s about taking things seriously, but not so seriously that it’s entirely void of enjoyment. It’s a surrender.
This feeds into the sensory deprivation aspect of it all. It’s about going to a place that outside of what we call life. There’s no job, no family, no relationships, nothing but you and the sound and the ritual. That’s why I find it so profoundly cleansing every time I see them. It’s genuine escapism. Not fantasy, not the cock-waving piss-contest bullshit of regular rock and roll, not you and me and your feelings about that other person and “oh, this is our song” and let’s dance around like idiots and have a great time. No. You enter the experience, and it consumes you, expunges thought and ego in a cleansing fire of pure sound.
And yeah, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone wants that kind of an experience (though having experienced it, I genuinely find it hard to imagine why a person wouldn’t be into at least the physical aspect of it). But it is what it is. We’re not lying to each other. It’s not about “look at me I can listen to this horrible noise for longer than you”. Not at all.
So is it pretentious? If it is, so is all art ever made. Sunn O))) is just more honest about their craft.
Sorry, that was kind of a rant. Only I’m not actually sorry.
Coming Soon O))) to a Blog Near Here…
Join me next time for perhaps the least fun record ever made, Black One.