Sunn O)))

support n/a
author LF date 15/08/15 venue DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, DEN

As a music critic, to review a live show by the American drone metal band Sunn O))) is probably the most unusual thing I've had to do. Yet I am generally sympathetically wired towards music that crosses into ambient or noise or is more of a kind of sound art than what we would more normally define as belonging to the definition of "music". Thus tonight's mix of drone, ambient, minimalism and noise put on by the somewhat experimental organization artFREQ has piqued my interest sufficiently that I find myself slightly worried on my way to the enormous DR Koncerthuset tonight. I am slightly worried because my network of friends have told me stories about how people throw up, faint and get nosebleeds at Sunn O)))'s shows simply because of the loudness of the music and thus I don't quite know what to expect from my own body on a hungover Saturday. I spend some of my waiting time before the show reading up on the constellation the band is performing in tonight which most prominently includes Attila Csihar of the famous black metal band Mayhem on vocals. Apart from him the band includes the two core members Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson on guitars and Tos Nieuwenhuizen on a Moog synthesizer.

All pictures by Peter Troest

Sunn O)))

As the clock strikes 9 pm, the stage is set by smoke machines that begin filling up the room and they continue to do so until every corner of the room is invisible and the decorative hanging light bulbs that make up the lighting in the room hang seemingly cordless from the ceiling like stars covering a night sky. We are already now being transported towards a different place, the heavy smoke playing with our senses as it slowly washes out the familiar surroundings around us for all of twenty minutes. And then the four cloaked figures arm their instruments of destruction and the drones begin. The smoke keeps welling up from the sides of the stage throughout the concert itself, our senses thus attacked from all sides. The only lights are the ones that shine up from behind the wall of amps that cover the middle of the stage. As a frequent concert-goer, I can't say I have ever listened to anything quite as dark or crushing as the music that is presented here. This I assume has to do with the deep notes the band is playing but also obviously with the outrageous sound level that it is all presented in. "Ever breathe a frequency?" asks one of the band's t-shirts at the merch table and I would definitely say that after this, I can relate to the full scope of this question.

So what does one do with oneself when experiencing noise levels like this that insist on being perceived as constituting a musical performance? I've read numerous times that the music of Sunn O))) is devoid of rhythmicity and melody but even though they obviously don't bring a drummer with them, there is certainly a varying pulse to follow in the way the immense sounds fill the room and bounce off every surface to roll back and forth. This pulsating quality is what I explore and ponder for the longest while and later on it is even supported by added lights from up high that shine down on the stage in similar pulses. It's like listening to and feeling the rumbles of a giant drill that is taking apart the ground beneath the building itself, but it's not quite just that. Even as the sound could be described as monotonous, it changes character as you give it time to work on you and for the longest while I only sense the passing of time from the fact that my feet are getting increasingly tired from standing up. It's meditative but also simply physically exhausting to endure sound waves as intense as these. Attila's guttural vocals make their entrance after a while and the performance changes character as two spotlights manifest him as the central figure on stage. Allusions to some kind of satanic mass or a ceremony for Cthulhu come to mind with the way his voice sort of clicks and rasps its way through the chant, the words never quite understandable and reminding me more than anything of the Black Speech of Tolkien's Mordor. Later sudden primal screams are added to his repertoire and as if in a sort of fever dream I'm transported back to a time when I was visiting the skeletal catacombs beneath Paris and I can only imagine that this is what my mind would begin to sound like if I was ever lost in that claustrophobic place in the dark for a day.

When Attila finally stops, I expect the music to take a while to just fade out so the performance can end, but instead it all gets more intense, the air feeling like it's solidifying around us. Attila returns to the mix with an absurdly pointed thorn-like crown on his head that seems to shoot out ultraviolet lasers in all directions, cutting through the smoke. At this point the vibrations in the air can be thoroughly felt and whenever there's a break for just an inch of a second in the continuity of one of the instruments I feel it as a giant wrench lets go of me only to grab my body in an iron grip immediately again. I'm surprised that I don't feel more nauseous through all of this even though I begin to feel a general uneasiness in my body during this last stretch of the performance. It's almost impossible to not be affected and impressed by this kind of performance simply because it's such an alien experience to subject oneself to. I find it extremely hard to put a grade on it, though, simply because I have nothing quite like it to hold it up against. In some ways you might say the experience of Sunn O))) live is a transcendental, even sublime one, but if the measure is full immersion in the atmosphere, I can imagine even better shows with them. At times, the show tonight is oddly alienating and I feel very conscious of it all being an experimental art performance rather than I feel swooped up by the atmosphere or mind blown by the majestic qualities of the sounds. As such I decide to leave it at this and slowly consider that I might be willing to subject myself to a performance of theirs again if nothing else just out of a curiosity to explore the differences.

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