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When the announcement of a full-length collaborative album between nightmare-fuel avant-garde crooner Scott Walker and robed drone-metal titans Sunn O))) first broke, what surprised me most was how many people were surprised. The both of them have spent most of their careers restlessly plowing past the outer limits of not just their own music, but music itself. It seemed almost inevitable they would stumble across each other in the darkness at some point.

While Sunn O))) are no strangers to collaboration—they teamed up with Boris for 2006’s excellent Altar, and earlier this year dropped Terrestrials, an uninspired pairing with Ulver—Walker is more insular, taking years and working with the same personnel to craft his records. The fear about a joint project between two such bold creative forces lies with the concern that the album would make for an overly artsy chore of a listen, or else that one side of the equation would overpower the strengths of the other. Thankfully, neither is the case. Soused not only strikes the perfect balance between the two aesthetics, but it provides a more immediate and rewarding listen than expected. The album kicks off the way a rock opera might on “Brando,” with Walker melodically belting out the opening lines and hired gun Tos Nieuwenhuizen playing a summer barbecue classic rock lick. But it’s not bright out for long. “Never enough / No / Never enough,” laments Walker, and we’re hit by the first wave of Sunn O)))’s artillery. The guitar roar is loud and impressive, but not overbearing. The drones don’t just add volume to these pieces, their thick, enveloping sound inspires Walker to stick with ideas longer, to use more conventional “rock” song structures reminiscent of his work on Nite Flights and Climate of Hunter, just with the pitch dropped and the volume cranked. Soused works for Walker because it shows he can evoke a dark, entrancing atmosphere with pared-down instrumentation, and it works for Sunn O))) because it creates all sorts of new contexts for their mammoth Gibson rumbles.

The Scott O))) concept reaches its apex on the second track, “Herod 2014”, a mesmeric piece of art-metal. The title evokes the biblical Massacre of the Innocents, but the date suggests a connection to things happening today. It’s a classic Walker lyrical move. The barbarity of history and myth collude with the postmodern: abstract imagery, pop culture, inside jokes. The sands are always shifting and the references pile up quick. “She’s hidden her babies away / Their soft gummy smiles / won’t be gilding the menu. / The deer fly, the sand fly / the tsetse can’t find them. / The goon from the Stasi / is left far behind them.” Sunn O))) back these chilling words with a glacial sludge riff that’s downright headbangable by their standards. The sound is further rounded out with a faintly audible bell chime, distorted background bellows, quick blasts of percussion, and off-key saxes that wail like sick infants. That all these weird elements are in the same song is a feat. That they sound great together, are expertly placed and mixed, and then welded to Walker’s most beautiful and memorable melody since Tilt’s “Farmer in the City” is a minor miracle.

Walker donates the extended outro of “Bull” to Sunn O))), but the amps shimmer and purr ominously rather than outright pummel. The fractal structure of “Fetish” most closely mirrors the erratic horror opuses of Bish Bosch. “Red, blade points / knife the air. / All night / he sees it / Constellating / his thought. / Acne on a leper.” Walker continues to dig deep into his vocabulary and imagination to reach masterful new depths of lyrical depravity. Should he decide his next project will be a one-man basement black metal act, he has to call it Bescumber. A recycling of the 1999 composition “Lullaby” wraps things up. The album back bears the familiar Sunn O))) credo Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results, but the exhilarating freakout synths in this song’s chorus make the case there should be some fine print attached for the faint of heart.

So it’s brutal, brilliant and beautiful, but is Soused a metal record? That’s up for debate. I say absolutely, maybe because I need for metal to be open enough to accommodate a work like this. To be metal in spirit, while not being burdened by conservative genre expectations. Walker’s aged croon may be a tough initial sell for some listeners more accustomed to rasps and growls, but that’s just another way Scott O))) breaks through boundaries. Soused, like Pallbearer’s Foundations of Burden earlier this year, challenges the notion that doom vocals can only be ethereal and indistinct, languishing behind thick amplifier mists. The fact that the album is more succinct and accessible than many would have thought—and rewards repeated listens—is even more reason to submerge yourself in its dark, strange riches.

—Jason Bailey

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