It was at the 2015 edition of the Utrecht-based music festival Le Guess Who (which year after year is a true must-attend for fans of alternative music) where I first saw Sunn O))) live, thinking I was prepared for what I was about to experience. I was not – especially not physically. Entering the already ominously foggy venue, towers of amplifiers greeted me like the monoliths from Kubrick’s classic »Space Odyssey«, ready for the coming inferno from another dimension. What followed was a one-hour full-body massage masqueraded as a concert of gloomy guitar meditation. The sound came in tides violently crashing against the audience. I felt it everywhere in my torso and the cartilage of my larynx vibrated unpleasantly when the assault became especially intense. Undoubtedly, not a soul would stay in this warzone without the earplugs that had been proactively distributed at the entrance by staff. The air in front of me seemed to condense to the point where it formed tiny pearly bubbles hitting each other like metal beads. Sonic waves became a palpable factor of bodily experience.
Droning since 1998, Sunn O))) have gradually shifted from mere amplifier-worship tracks to meticulously crafted, detailed and varied (albeit these characteristics are usually revealed to the patient listener only) pieces that potentially please every aficionado of experimental music. Peaking creatively with »Monoliths & Dimensions« in 2009, where they incorporated a choir and a myriad of instruments, Sunn O))) had long since taken their seat on the grisly throne of drone. In the 2010s, the band remained relatively reserved in releasing new material, apart from a couple of collaborative efforts and a sequence of tracks called »Kannon« that were collected on a fairly short album of the same name in late 2015. And then 2019 came and as if to celebrate the anniversary of their aforementioned masterpiece »Monoliths & Dimensions«, fans are now being spoiled with not one but two new albums. It was worth the wait, for they got Sunn O))) records actually conveying a huge portion of the full physical force the band displays at live shows.
Sailing in friendlier waters
»Life Metal« came out in spring and what caught the eye first was the album cover: Instead of showing a claustrophobia-inducing stare into a blank black chasm or some other abstract cue for uneasiness, a colorful nebula evokes the earth’s early days when life itself was still in the making. And so was the music on the album unlike ever before more reminiscent of slowly flowing streams of magma brightly radiating light rather than the oppressively dark realm of the underworld. This may have in parts something to do with the production choices of the famous Steve Albini. Yet in an interview with the »New Noise Magazine« Anderson has actually stated the music of »Life Metal« to reflect »a lot of positive things« happening in the band members’ lives. The fact that the band let their private happiness have a say in their music comes as a mild surprise – and it is a change of pace that has to prove itself.
It is only natural to encounter a similar aesthetic on »Pyroclasts«, for it was indeed conceived on the same day as its twin. At the start and the end of each day during the making of »Life Metal«, Sunn O))) and collaborators would dedicate around twelve minutes for improvised sessions to be recorded. Four of these pieces were gathered to form »Pyroclasts«, a post-script to the preceding album. The opener »FROST (C)« checks all the boxes of the »Life Metal« formula right away. Massive, crisp soundscapes that seem to be inspired by natural forces of the most macroscopic scale. And opposed to earlier undertakings, the tone set is way lighter and forgiving. May the environment the song throws you into be a hostile one, with an icy wind blowing (one can actually hear wind soaring up and down sublimely) – at least the vision is sharp and clear and the spirits are high. No existential dread, no claustrophobia, no jumpscares, but deep respect in the face of nature’s forces is what the song transports. Towards the end, the listener is even granted a heroic feeling. And this is basically the thread that guides the listener throughout the album: He/She blazes a trail through the walls of sounds like a lonely voyager feeling exhausted, yet super confident to find safe shelter before dusk falls.
There is a moment in first third of »AMPLIPHÆDIES (E)« where suddenly a soft riff finds its way through the droning that I would almost describe as soothing. Being lulled into this chill state of mind, the aggressively high-pitched first tone of the closer »ASCENSION (A)« caught me by surprise uncomfortably – the only occasion on the album where I felt kind of sonically assaulted (which is normally a very common thing to happen on a Sunn O))) record). And at least to my perception this song proves to be the gloomiest on the tracklist. The monolithic riffs leave slightly less air to breathe than the preceding ones, cumulating into a nicely dense middle-part, before the piece takes a short breath and goes full throttle towards the finish line, where it stops abruptly (to be honest, very abruptly, which makes for just as an eyebrow-raising moment as the start of the track).
A successful trade-off
Being kicked back to reality after the album clocks in at around 45 minutes, I feel to have listened to a very nicely composed, great-sounding, very solid drone metal record. However, didn’t I expect to feel more uneasy after listening to a Sunn O))) record? Where is that addictive darkness and oppression of the old classics? Surely the new production style is excellent and deeply gratifying, but I hella want Sunn O))) to scare me! Also, I hoped to see more sonic variation. Surprising and spicy additives to the usual formula like strings, horns and choirs were the key elements that made »Monoliths« extremely engaging. So, is this a reason to feel disappointed about »Pyroclasts«? Not necessarily. I mean, I do feel that in places the tracks here sound a bit like drone metal by the numbers. For instance, »KINGDOMS (G)« serves as a good substrate for meditation with a slightly dramatic climax on top, yet fails to bring anything special to the table that is not already special about the whole album (which is the great production).
Yet what undeniably sells this thing is that these four jams are incredibly well crafted and do not fall short of the songs on »Life Metal«, be it sonically or compositionally. »Pyroclasts« sounds just as massive as the eruptions that bring about the airborne geological material of the same name. A big selling-point for both albums. While the sound on earlier records was still excellent, they appeared rather muddy in comparison to the crisp arrangement presented here. The guitars come to a fuller realization than ever before, making for a corporal listening experience not much short from witnessing them live. The presentation is crisp, tangible and immediate. This is what legendary producer Steve Albini spawned as he took up the job to produce both new albums. On that front, »Pyroclasts« definitely hits the sweet spot. It surely works great as a companion to its predecessor, sounding just as good and I dare say even outdoing it in terms of focus. However, I am pretty sure that whenever I decide to give my ears some candy of the droning sort I will rather come back to the grimmer environments of »Monoliths« and »Black One«. I like my Sunn O))) to radiate opaque blackness rather than glorious light. I might not be the only one. Yet what has to be acknowledged: Making »Life Metal« and »Pyroclasts« sound different was a conscious decision. On all fronts, the right strings were pulled to let the result live up to Sunn O)))’s blazing reputation. Frankly, what should hold us back from considering this a major triumph?