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Abstract Antithesis: Sunn O)))’s Doomy Drone Blossoms on “Life Metal”

Sunn O))) -- Life Metal

Life Metal is not so much a return to form for now-legendary drone/doom band Sunn O))). Their form, if anything, is precisely what has made them legendary: long, long drones, sometimes soaring past the 20-minute mark, with absolutely minimal chordal movement, plus gain and fuzz stacked to infinity to create a textural sheet of sound so massive it just almost seems like it doesn’t come from a guitar at all. But, with that little spark of strings and fingers on fretboards and amplifier hum, the marking of that most holy instrument — the electric guitar — is still there. It should be noted, too, that Sunn O))) have never been bad at it either. It helps that neither of the two core members are exactly new to metal in general (and doom metal specifically), having cut their teeth in groups like Thorr’s Hammer, Burning Witch, and Goatsnake as well as having formed supergroup Khanate during the greater lifespan of Sunn O))). Combine this with collaborations with other legends of drone riffs like Earth and Boris, not to mention their arthouse collaborations with Scott Walker and Ulver and their world-class live show, and you have a group that doesn’t seem designed to disappoint.

This is what made their prior album Kannon so difficult in ways. It was not, of course, a bad album — following their idiom, I highly doubt Sunn O))) have a bad album in them. But, Kannon marked the first time a release from the band felt more or less inessential, as though the body of their work would not be missing much were that release shorn from the family tree. This was, at the time, an acceptable thing to feel: they had been a group at that point for about 20 years, and their release schedule had slowed to a drip. It felt perhaps that this was a final cannonade, a swansong before the dropping of the curtain. And as far as finales go, it wouldn’t have been a bad one, bringing in Attila Csihar, a man who has by this point become the defacto voice of the group’s music, as well as Australian instrumentalist wunderkind Oren Ambarchi for additional guitars and percussion and synth genius Steve Moore to boot. It was not their greatest album and may have in fact been their weakest after their debut, but it still was a notch above the standard fare of any given week and wouldn’t have closed the door on a sour note.

All this makes Life Metal all the more curious. The expectations for the record were low; not that it was expected to be a poor album, but that the bar that Sunn O))) needed to cross over to deliver a satisfactory record at this stage in their career was much lower than their hot streak from White1 through to Monoliths and Dimensions, especially following Kannon which felt to many people like the band’s end. Life Metal had a brief perception as being a final little taster, like a return from the dead of the group. By these standards, the group would only need to play the standards so to speak, let chords ring out and be heavy as all hell, and everything would be gravy. Instead, they delivered one of the best albums of their career, up there with Black One and Monoliths and Dimensions as potentially their most emotionally rich record to date.

The changes are, of course, subtle. There appears at times a church organ so deep and sonorous that it will likely take you several listens to differentiate it from the guitar chords. There is a weak and febrile female vocal on the opening track that gives a sense of vulnerability and impossible strength, that beautiful paradox of sound-image. But aside from gentle touches like these, Life Metal sonically resembles business as usual for the group. What has changed is not gimmicks, which in the case of the Scott Walker record produced a tremendous world-class work, but instead the fundamentals of chord progressions and the specificity of the texturalism of the breaking waves of distortion in the speakers. This last part is a tricky, near-impossible thing to control, the fractured and non-repeating patterns of how distortion and gain structures affect sound waves (especially at this intensity) in turn not being able to consistently guarantee sound structures that will be emotionally rich or even legible.

But Sunn O))) got lucky here, or perhaps just have learned over decades how to hide studious work to get the right sounds.

The cover, a cosmic smear of dancing light in yellows and oranges and blues in dark stellar contour, offers a perfect if evasive emotional image of the album. Life Metal is meditative, perhaps a touch more so than their typical drone doom. It seems with their chord choices to touch on the buried pain and confusion of life, not in a miserablist sense but a therapeutic one. What emerges from the geological cracking ground of Sunn O)))’s fantastical feedback dreamscapes may be difficult memories, but they are also the kernels of life and experience within them, the primal suffusion of joy/suffering that exists in duality beneath every experience. (This reads as perhaps a stretch, and I think anyone online for long enough will have read enough art critiques by BFA and MFA holders where the metaphors reach a bit to make it a bit of an eye-roll, but I promise that sensation is there). It’s the way these chords produce tension, jutting up next to each other as they do, being just the right kind of dissonant with each other and forcing the soundwaves to clash in a way that is amplified by the massive gain. As a result, you can physically feel the tension rising in your body, all grounded by that subtle but increasingly perceivable organ in the background, like a human breath. Then the chords rumble, shifting, and briefly you imagine a release of all of this tension, only for it to stretch higher and more dissonant, even if only slightly.

It is like being on a rack, or the kinds of psychic pain you feel 20 minutes into a meditation, when it seems like your psyche has been drunk up by the void inside of you. But inevitably each song, none of which are shorter than ten minutes, reaches its mighty end — at that point, you are granted that sigh of relief as chords come at last together and release that infinite coil within you. It is that precise measured mastery of how to balance emotional tension over long-scale compositions with minimal motion that makes Sunn O))) at their best so very great. Life Metal specifically in this regard is one of their very best. Maintaining their signature structures is a difficult task; to return after four years of near silence to deliver one of their most emotionally rich and fulfilling records to date would be more than enough to satisfy any fan of heavy or experimental music. I hope that the companion album Pyroclasts, recorded simultaneously but to be released later in the year, can live up to the very large shoes its sibling just left for it.

Life Metal had a limited physical release on Record Store Day, is streaming now via NPR, and will be available everywhere on Friday via Southern Lord.

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