The Sigil of the Sunn Amp Marks Thy Path
Sunn O))) work long-term. It’s not just that they make 20-minute songs. The gestation period for their projects can take place over years. They were working on their most recent album, last year’s Kannon, at least as far back as 2009. The origins of the sound of their fifth album proper, 2005’s Black One, stretches back even further: Stephen O’Malley once referred to the album as a ‘purging’ of the group’s interests in black metal that goes all the way back to the early '90s.
Sunn O)))'s link with black metal dates all the way from O'Malley's creation of the black metal-centric Descent Magazine in 1993 to their recurring collaborations with Attila Csihar to, most significantly, the stated influence of Burzum on their early albums. Sunn O)))’s approach to metal tropes has always been abstract and that influence makes perfect sense despite their records sounding, for the most part, nothing at all like Burzum. Instead they channeled Burzum’s focus on texture, repetition, and sonic 'space' in an entirely new context to conjure the atmosphere of their earliest dronescapes. They continued this approach on Black One while making even more explicit references to black metal on both sonic and aesthetic levels, ‘purging’ themselves of this obsession by dealing with it more directly. In the process they transformed both black metal and their own core sound.
Sunn O))) alludes to black metal numerous times throughout the track list of Black One: The title of the introductory "Sin Nanna" pays homage to the man behind Tasmanian black metal institution Striborg; "Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)" takes its title (and some musical cues) from the Immortal song of the same name; "CandleGoat" samples Attila Csihar’s vocals from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas; "Báthory Erzsébet" reworks a riff from Bathory's "A Fine Day to Die." Most importantly Sunn O))) collaborate with two pioneers of US black metal: Wrest of Leviathan and Malefic of Xasthur.
At the heart of Black One is a tension between two opposing forces: Sunn O)))’s traditional drone sound and their experimentation with black metal tropes. "It Took the Night to Believe" illustrates this tension: the glacial, low-end trudge of one guitar is prototypical of Sunn O))) but the ghostly tremolo riff that circles high above it comes straight from black metal. The dissonances between these two elements, the way in which the song refuses to adhere strictly to drone or black metal, gives the song a feeling of uncertainty. Wrest’s vocals enter next, groaned rather than shrieked, hopeless rather than aggressive, like the voice of a man dying in a catacomb. The unpredictability of the instrumentation combined with the depressive nature of the vocals darkens mood of the song towards a despair that borders on the nihilistic.
Black metal is often associated with landscapes and natural phenomena: to use Burzum as an example, that band’s first album features a figure standing in a fog-shrouded marsh on the cover and opens with a song called “Feeble Screams from Forests Unknown.” “Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)” taps into this vein, again working a strange alchemy between the austerity of the music and the intensity of the vocals. Malefic's performance is more frenzied than Wrest's and with his voice buried in layers of noise he sounds like a lunatic raving in the midst of a blizzard. Again a sense of hopeless pervades: the lyrics mention “the vast expanse of hopelessness” and Malefic’s voice sounds constantly on the verge of being erased in the storm of feedback and static.
The evocation of extreme psychological states is taken to the brink of oblivion on 16-minute closing track "Báthory Erzsébet." The first several minutes are nearly silent but for the slow tolling of a distant bell, a reference to the custom of ringing church bells at the time of death or during a funeral. This signals a descent into black metal's obsession with death. When vocals finally enter they are nothing but heavy breathing: the sound of human panic. In keeping with the funeral theme, Malefic--who is claustrophobic--recorded his vocals from inside a locked casket.
To some extent he’s not ‘performing’ at all; this is closer to audio vérité of genuine suffering. Again Sunn O))) re-contextualize black metal's harsh vocals into something stranger and more abstract: What follows is a sort of vocal field recording that exists somewhere between performance art and a nervous breakdown, backed by massive, dread-sweating drones. What is so unsettling about Malefic's vocals here is their lack of affect; he doesn't shriek or scream or project his voice at all. Rather, he moans and groans in a muffled rasp that sounds drained of any recognizable human feeling or emotion. What comes to mind is not so much a premature burial as a sort of living death, a consciousness that exists even after the body has expired. And so as Black One closes Sunn O))) have taken their exploration of black metal aesthetics as far as it can go: past the grave, past death and straight into the void.