Sunn O))) looking like what they sound like. photo John Robb

Sunn O))) looking like what they sound like. photo John RobbSunn O)))
Manchester, The Ritz
June 11th 2012

What is this thing called Sunn O))) ?

The atmospheric Ritz, with it’s old ballroom feel is perfect this event. Onstage, shrouded in dry ice and with a mountain of great amps, a strange group are dressed as sonik monks with hooded outfits and are building up a huge, enveloping wall of sound that fills the room with its powerful, hypnotic carpet of noise.

It’s a stunning spectacle and a perfect example of rock right at its fringes being made to work.

Sunn O))) are a sonic force of nature, a primal sound that fills the room like the dry ice on the stage. It’s perhaps the most mesmerising sound there is out there right now. Rock slowed down to its basic drone and then slowed down some more creating a dank and dark atmopshere that is meditative and pulls out all manner of emotions in a drone experience that combines the sense of landscape of ambient and the power of black metal with a hint of classical or the Miles Davies sticky voodoo jazz of Agharta.
Sunn O))) live are an incredible experience.

The now LA based (moving there from Seattle) group sound take to the stage dressed as monks with pointy hoods on, they are shrouded in mystery and dry ice and proceed to play one long droning piece that is the whole set. It’s like classical played by noise freaks, a huge sound that incorporates subtleties and teases with your soul.

This is rock stripped away of all its reference points and into somewhere deeper and darker. There is genius at play here, this is not noise for noise sake, there is a clever and careful layering of the sound from deep bowel rattling sub bass drones aided by the quadraphonic PA set up to the slivers of feedback flashing round the room. The music ebbs and flows with a nod to ambient, but an ambient that is is full of dread and volume that they have been perfecting since their 2000 debut 00 Void.

Built around the enigmatic Stephen O Malley the band have a twin guitar assault that dispenses with boring stuff like chords and solos and relies on the skilful waves of sound from the guitars that build up a wall of sound surfing the electricity of the vibrating strings. It may initially sound like a wall of sound but there is beauty in here as well, like the fringes of Norwegian Black metal that it sometimes sails close to.

The black metal connection is underlined with the growling, sonorous vocals of Attila Csihar on vocals that sound similar to the enigmatic Gahl from Wardruna and Gorgoroth. Attila is the Hungarian black metal singer who joins the band for live shows and improvises over the top of the crescendo that builds behind him, adding a whole new texture the soundscapes.

Black metal is a good reference reference point- the only music that is pushing forward, it’s no coincidence that the band are working with Norwegian black metal band gone into dark electronics Ulver on some project, it all makes sense, the dank, dark, wet weather climates of Norway and Seattle breeding these brooding music’s that even Sunn O)))’s relocation to LA cannot affect. When black metal moved beyond it’s initial post death metal riffing and into weird soundscapes it became fascinating- utilising its power into something else- picking up Norwegian folk, ambience and classical into bizarre soundscapes that make a nonsense of anyone who denies the fact that music still moves forward.

Sunn O))) are, of course, not black metal, they have their own agenda and tonight their juggernaut is having a powerful effect. A woman in the audience is curled up the foetal position, jaws are dropped and eyes are on stalks. Seasoned gig goers have never seen anything like this before.

Sunn O))) came from grunge, their initial forays were attempts at slowing the Melvins grunge sludge down and like fellow travellers Earth, who were another influence on their noisescapes (whilst onstage wearing their noise capes!), the took this a whole lot further, getting deep into the sustain and sculpting great block of sound that has the audience totally tripped out at its powerful and emotional skree.

The monkish outfits give the performance a ritual aspect, a high decibel ceremony. Years ago they would lie behind their amps, making their impressive collection of amps the stars of the show and, like a mountain of collectors guitar amps with the shadowy shapes of the hooded figures appearing in front of them. Sometime a guitarists fist goes up in the air before the figure disappears into the fuggy mist- it’s the perfect presentation and reflection of the music which appears and disappears as well. There could be a hint of melody, a piece of attractive feedback that will disappear into the dark mist of the sound. Elusive and powerful, Sunn O))) are right here and right now the best live experience you could have taking you on an amazing trip. For hours afterwards all other music feels and sounds plinky plonky.

This may all sound quite hard work but if you let yourself go you are totally lost in the music along with nearly a 1000 other people who are witness to this astonishing band. That is Sunn O))). A trip. A journey that turns you inside out.

The next time someone tells you that rock has lost its way and nothing is innovative anymore send them over here”¦

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


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