Sunn O))) live at Brookline, MA’s Coolidge Corner Theater
Words and Photos by Ben Stas
Sunn O)))’s reputation proceeds them. Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s adventurous drone-doom project qualifies as a veteran act in 2017, and their trademark robes, fog and extreme volume are a given. The easiest joke to make at the band’s expense is that anyone could adopt that aesthetic, sustain a single note for ten minutes and call it art. But much like the ways in which the band’s recorded output thrives on collaboration and unpredictability, their live show has always skillfully sidestepped making a gimmick of that core tenet of low-end, resonating guitar feedback. Now operating as a five-piece, Sunn O))) brought their dark magic back to Boston for the first time in nearly five years on a cold March 16th, and it was worth the wait.
Montreal’s Big|Brave joined them on the road for this short run of East Coast dates. The power trio wrung tension and atmosphere from measured, eerie compositions that exploded into brief bursts of heaviness. They were worlds removed from the night’s headliners (as most bands are), but effectively set the mood in the theatre nonetheless.
The Coolidge Corner, it should be noted, is primarily an old-fashioned cinema rather than a traditional concert venue – an old one at that. To see its ornate art-deco interior gradually flooded with fog between sets until it resembled the set of a David Lynch dream sequence was a surreal experience befitting of the surreal nature of spending an evening with Sunn O))). Barring an appearance in some sort of cavernous historic church, it was difficult to imagine a better venue in which to experience this particular spectacle.
Once the ambiance had been sufficiently established, vocalist Attila Csihar was the first to emerge from the mist and address the capacity crowd. Joining Sunn O))) between the North American and European legs of Mayhem’s ongoing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas tour, Csihar delivered the set’s opening movement alone, intoning ominously until the rest of the band assembled behind him and kicked the production into more skull-rattling territory. As a guest vocalist – though essentially a permanent one – Csihar took on a more subdued persona than the ring-leading ghoul of last month’s Mayhem set. Though he stood front and center for much of the night, his role was more akin to a ceremonial host for the sonic ritual being conducted behind him.
Anderson and O’Malley naturally served as the set’s focal points, casting forth seismic waves of slow-motion sound from their beloved walls of amplifiers. The enveloping roar of their dual guitar onslaught invites hyperbolic description, because its multi-sensory effect isn’t something easily put into words. At peak volume, it shook you from the inside in ways that few live music experiences can.
But part of what makes Sunn O))) such a masterful live act is that its core duo know when to pull back, too. Anderson and O’Malley periodically ceded focus to keys, synths and even the occasional trombone interlude, lending dynamics to a band whose live presence is widely known only for its embrace of the extreme. The sense of ebb and flow made the night’s climactic moments that much more effective, particularly during its fever-pitched final minutes when Csihar donned a suit of mirrors and spikes and reflected laser beams through the room.
The bank of chemical smoke finally began to dissipate at the end of the nearly two-hour experience, and one’s hearing took a few minutes to readjust to the decibel levels of the normal world. Sunn O))) are nothing if not immersive. And while a tendency towards dark theatrical flair surely isn’t a novel concept in metal history, a night like this reinforced that there’s still no other band that executes it quite like this.