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Three Songs No Flash

Meditate On Bass Weight: Why Sunn O))) Are A Dance Act
Angus Finlayson , June 16th, 2012 10:04

The mighty Sunn O))) returned to London this week for a scorching show at Koko. Angus Finlayson was there, and felt striking parallels with the physically overwhelming rituals of dance music and sound system culture. Photography by Maria Jefferis of Shot2bits

My first experience of Sunn O))) live was at ATP's tenth birthday celebrations in 2010. There were a fair few bands I wanted to see, but I was mostly there to waft from stage to stage in a medicated haze. Having launched into my teenage years as a rock fan with delusions of grandeur, I was by this point more or less fully in thrall to the logic of dance music culture: the understanding that the singular hedonic moment (I'm having a good time) is of more value than the more abstractly significant one (I've always wanted to see this band); that music's functionality, its role in the pursuit of pleasure, is ultimately more divine than an artist's expression of their self-ness or the canonic importance of witnessing a great band perform. Seriously, fuck holding in a piss, silencing the cries of protest from your lower back and running sandpaper tongue round parched mouth for the nth time, just because this is so-and-so's first gig in a decade and you don't want to miss the encore. This was my view at the time, anyway.

Central to this logic - and by inference to the seductive power of dance music, its rituals and its unwritten rules - is the importance of sonic affect: the un-decoded materiality of sound waves impacting on and moving through your body. And central to that - whether you're talking about disco, minimal techno, dubstep or whatever else - is bass: those primal frequencies that are felt not heard, resonating through the chest and the bowels, vibrating the soul.

Julian Henriques neatly encapsulates the effects of high-intensity bass-quake in his concept of 'sonic dominance': the notion of a sound so loud and overwhelming that its effects tip over into some newly visceral realm. Drawing on Jamaican sound system culture as his example, Henriques identifies the effects of high-volume, bass-heavy sound thus:

"Sonic dominance is hard, extreme and excessive. At the same time the sound is also soft and embracing and it makes for an enveloping, immersive and intense experience. The sound pervades, or even invades the body, like smell. Sonic dominance is both a near over-load of sound and a super saturation of sound. You're lost inside it, submerged under it. This volume of sound crashes down on you like an ocean wave, you feel the pressure of the weight of the air like diving deep underwater. [...] Even more than music heard normally[,] at this level sound allows us to block out rational processes, making the experience imminent, immediate and unmediated."

Those who've been to a reggae sound system dance, DMZ at Mass, the Berghain, or any other of dance music's innumerable meccas, will identify with this description instantly. It's the loss of control, the submission (willing or unwilling) to frequencies that spin out your balance organs and crush the air out of your lungs - an experience at once terrifying and liberating, and one that's been intrinsically linked with electronic dance music culture of the past three decades or more...

...The full version of this article is available in Point Close All Quotes: A Quietus Music Anthology. Buy it now in the Amazon Kindle store.

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