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Loudness, Chillness, and “Life Metal”

life metal

Ten years ago, discerning listeners were terrified at the prospect of loudness. The recorded music industry at the time was stuck in an arms race colloquially referred to as the “Loudness War.” While this suggests that recorded music had gradually been increasing in volume, the actual meaning of the term is more complicated. “Loudness” wasn’t the problem; after all, plenty of people like to listen to music at high volume. What the press, record collectors, and mastering engineers were trying to describe was a flattening of music by way of compression, a tool that recording engineers use to shrink the distance between a recording’s quietest moments and its loudest. Heavily compressed recordings seem louder to the ear because they replace dynamics with a steady and consistent volume. In order to make their songs stand out in the competitive field of radio, labels, artists, and engineers were pushing for increasingly extreme uses of compression. At its worst, this effect was referred to as “brickwalling,” a phenomenon where a song’s waveform would look like a continuous block instead of a wave that ebbs and flows with the song’s musical arc.

By the late 2000s, brickwalling and loudness had seeped into the terminology of casual fans. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica were accused by their audience of ruining their own music by compressing it too severely. Some fans even ripped versions of Metallica’s 2009 album Death Magnetic from the popular instrument simulator Guitar Hero, since the video game had used a more forgiving mastering process than the commercially available version of the album.

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Everything about that previous sentence feels antiquated now. Guitar Hero and its rival property Rock Band have long since fell out of favor. Instead of taking the stage themselves to perform sloppy renditions of Avenged Sevenfold songs, gamers now spend their time watching Marshmello and Weezer play concerts for digital avatars in Fortnite.

The concern over loudness has also faded into the distance. The rise of streaming services over the last decade has all but made irrelevant the prospect of a song catching someone’s ear simply by being louder than the competition. This is in part due to the fact that apps like Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music employ their own mastering and compression on their tracks library. The Loudness War ended, and like any war, there were winners and losers. An average music fan, now free of the crunched and clipped sounds that dominated the airwaves a decade ago, may view themselves as the victors here, but their victory comes second-hand.

The real victors are the streaming services, and to the victors go the spoils.

We have left the age of loudness and entered the age of “chill.” Chill, like loudness before it, is a more complicated concept than it appears at first glance. When writers like Liz Pelly and Amanda Petrusch criticize the concept of “chillness,” they aren’t saying that music shouldn’t be relaxing. Instead, they are pointing out how streaming services and YouTube channels like “lo-fi beats to study to” promote a flatness in music, where individual songs are reduced to part of an obtrusive background ambience.

Despite have opposite effects on our attention span, loudness being too attention-grabbing and chillness being designed to make you pay attention to something other than music, these lines of criticism share a common enemy. The music isn’t at fault, but the people and companies delivering the music to us are. Both loudness and chillness devalue music to a consumable. Even if artists deliberately chase the crunched sound of a brickwalled master or prefer to make songs that don’t vie for your full concentration, their decision to do so helps prop up a paradigm that ultimately serves the interests of distributors, not the art itself. In the hands of streaming services and commercial radio, a song is a product, one that either needs to be hawked to us at the highest possible volume or pureed into a flavorless paste.

This is a crucial distinction. Once we understand the problem with chill and loudness doesn’t lie in the music itself, we can start to disentangle their negative connotations from the musical qualities that they damn by association. There should be loud music, and there should be relaxing music. With so much music out in the world, there should be space for music to be both loud and relaxing without being the product of corporate interference. In short: there should be music like Life Metal.

Life Metal is the eighth full-length record by Sunn O))), a guitar duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley known for making music so loud that their audience is occasionally showered in dust falling from the rafters during their concerts. Taken at face value, Sunn O))) make heavy metal music: their work is distorted, tuned low, and accompanied by plenty of smoke and satanic imagery. They are by appearances alone a metal band, but that description has never quite felt complete.

Sunn O))) play slowly. So slowly that casual listeners might find them tempoless. Without the confines of a steady rhythm, Sunn O))) songs expand perpetually outward. By playing at a dangerously high volume, Anderson & O’Malley funnel each note in a loop from guitar to amp and back again, resulting in waves of feedback. Their music is as much a product of physics as songwriting.

On record, Sunn O))) have more in common with ambient music than metal proper. This style of drone metal, pioneered by bands like Boris and Earth, doesn’t have the same goals as the genre’s mainstream. Pummeling you is not the goal; enveloping you is. The music doesn’t seem to change based on the structure of a song. Instead, it seems to ooze out of the speakers as it sees fit.

Some people find this approach meditative, soothing even. Others find it terminally boring. The duo ask so much of their audience, in terms of time and volume, that inevitably some folks aren’t likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. Listening for timbre and not for melody or rhythm isn’t natural, especially for an hour straight. Although I consider myself a fan of their music, I often hesitate to play their records for fear of finding myself bored halfway through. Sunn O))) do not fair well against distraction or a break in focus, which is why, like many other psychedelic-inclined followings before them, Sunn O))) fans will insist that “you gotta see ‘em live, man.”

The ‘heads have a point here. Sunn O))) are a fundamentally different band live, but not for any musical reason. The sound of their music is very much the same, albeit significantly louder. What distinguishes Sunn O)))’s live show is how the band attack your other senses. Low frequencies played at such high volumes have a physical effect.

I have yet to see Sunn O))) live myself, but I did get a chance to hear Life Metal in a close replica of their concert setup. On Record Store Day last month, I and a cadre of other bearded Brooklyn metalheads were guided into a warehouse filled with smoke and two towering stacks of amplifiers. Each of us were given a pair of earplugs and were strongly encouraged to wear them. (The bartender went one step further, wearing giant construction headphones. During playback drink orders were conducted by pantomime and finger pointing.) Once the room was appropriately smoked out, an unassuming voice emerged from somewhere behind the amps and listed off the musicians responsible for the album and the record’s technical specs before disappearing and pressing play.

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I can’t fault the disembodied voice for the dry presentation. Trying to describe Sunn O)))’s music in the abstract will make you sound like either a dumbass or a tryhard. Even when Sunn O))) include lyrics in the music, it’s hard to say that their work is “about” anything other than the experience of listening to it. Again, here is where the difference between home listening and live listening is stark. Unless you’ve poured far too much money into your speaker system, no one can match the sheer intensity that their music accomplishes on the “correct” setup. Unless you can feel it in your guts and sense it in the air around you it can only be at worst a hellish racket and at best a soothing ambience. Without physicality, Sunn O))) can slide into the background and become chill.

At the listening party, Life Metal refused to hang in the background of the room. It was the room. It was inseparable from the chair I was sitting on, the smoke that filled my eyes, the people sitting next to me, the beer I was drinking, or my own body. Once the initial shock of how loud the music was wore off, and once acceptance that my ears would ring for several days straight settled in, the effect was soothing. With no choice other than to focus on the music, I was free to hear it however I wanted to and let the sounds guide my thoughts instead of the other way around.

What I thought about isn’t all that important, only that my thoughts happened on the music’s terms. “Chill” as a pejorative describes the opposite, music bent to the will of an algorithm and unable to connect with the listener on a deeper level. But colloquially, I was chill during the listening party. Serene, if a bit overwhelmed, and relaxed. Similarly, “loudness” describes a process by which music loses its impact due to a lack of dynamics. But Life Metal was so loud that it redefined the dynamic range altogether. Sound was ever-present, what changed was the shape it took and how you felt that shape inside of your body. Instead of being robbed of vitality, Life Metal’s loudness and chillness are precisely what made it feel alive.

Ian Cory is a freelance music critic and the songwriter for Lamniformes. Follow his newsletter: “I Don’t Know Why I’m Like This.”

Bonus: check out our full review of Life Metal.

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