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Album Of The Week

Masters Of The Ecstatic – Life Metal By Sunn O)))
Luke Turner , April 11th, 2019 08:43

On their eighth studio album, Life Metal, Seattle's Sunn O))) prove once again that the greatest art is often simultaneously deadly serious and utterly ridiculous, finds Luke Turner

I often think we've got Sunn O))) wrong. For all the talk of records about hidden civilisations, the robes, the notorious if occasionally exaggerated anecdotes about the physical impact of their gigs on unsuspecting audiences, the odd onstage fight, the intensity of their heaviosity that inspires writers and fans alike to perplexed rapture with words like “crepuscular”, rarely do we see them described for what they are – masters of the ecstatic. The aesthetics - black metal warped via contemporary design - and presence of Attila Csihar might once have promoted a newly initiate broadsheet journalist to whisper ask me "are they Satanists?" but Sunn O))) really, have always been about the light. Most times I've seen them play live the experience has been one of reflective or joyous endorphin release, more akin to a cathedral evensong or standing under the ice-cold waterfall of a mountain stream than an unpleasant sonic assault. As Stephen O'Malley told me in 2017, "This isn't a violent thing. It's powerful, but our intention is not to be destructive. It's nourishment."

That idea of Sunn O))) as "nourishment" has been in mind in the last week or so of listening to Life Metal, their eighth studio voyage and the first of two releases produced by Steve Albini in his Electrical Audio studio. With four tracks, two of which hover around the 20-minute mark, it's a far meatier record than the back-to-basics 2015 release Kannon. It's also the first studio appearance in a long while without vocalist Attila Csihar, something I was initially somewhat concerned about – more of which later. There's a sense from O'Malley and Greg Anderson's words around the release of the album that they needed to give themselves something of a kickstart. After all, Monoliths & Dimensions and Scott Walker collaboration Soused were the sort of career-defining records that make any return to a previous sonic palette or way of working feel like a regression.

So they returned to the LA studio in which they'd formed the band two decades ago for sessions of what they rather brilliantly describe as "riff woodshedding" (why do something so utterly mundane as "jam" when you can do woodshed riffs?), followed by a pre-production session with long-time collaborator Tos Nieuwenhuizen at Dave Grohl's studio, before the eventual trip to Electrical Audio and the tinkering fingers of Steve Albini.

The result is a record every bit as rewarding as the sonic and conceptual heights achieved by Monoliths… or Soused. There’s the same elemental power, but far less grandiose, making Life Metal one of the most direct and, weirdly, playful records of the Sunn oeuvre. I'm one of those people (I suspect like the vast majority) who generally can't really tell the difference between one method of recording and another, but there's a colossal space around the music throughout. It rips and roars, blisters and hums, yet with a subtlety that leaves you at times wishing that it had been released in tandem with the second "more reflective" Pyroclasts album due to be released later in the year. I almost can’t wait to find out how they mesh, or compliment, one another.

Yet perhaps that would have puffed this up into an unnecessarily overblown double album. The strength of Life Metal is the sheer breadth that it does cover. The title conjures up images of some muscled bro, screaming straight edge exhortations to better living via 400 push-ups and frat guitar devotion. You hear that sort of aesthetic in the high-note drama of the melodic riff a few minutes into 'Between Sleipner's Breaths', a track that begins with the sound of a whinnying horse. Who can refuse to love a record that begins with a whinnying horse, especially when it's the eight-legged creature ridden by Norse god Odin? This strikes me as an aspect of the much-overlooked humour to the Sunn O))) universe. They're a group who, after all, backed Scott Walker yodelling "hey nonny nonny", a timely reminder that the greatest art is often simultaneously deadly serious and utterly ridiculous. Hildur Guðnadóttir delivers a wonderful vocal incantation amid the classic Sunn O))) riffstorm – albeit one that comes on with a far higher tempo than perhaps we've become used to - before the track ends with another neigh, and snort. It's a fine opener, evidence that the titanic beast is emerging with its core power intact and enhanced by a new dynamic and an incredible depth. Back to the absence of Csihar. For all his significance as a focal point for the Sunn O))) live experience, whether dressed in robes, as a tree, or fractured mirrors, his singing has such complexity and character that at times it felt as if the guitars were subservient to him. With that removed, they're untethered to sound more exultant, to explore new frequencies and, indeed, to give space to the female texture of Guðnadóttir's voice. In the same way, the preposterous fanfare of following 'Troubled Air' gives plenty of space for a pipe organ element by composer Anthony Pateras to breathe.

Even without the hum of the organ, horses, or Guðnadóttir's vocals, Albini's production has given the record a deep sensuality, the riffs of 'Aurora's opening few minutes as warm and as potent as running finger tips on the rolling skin of a new lover. That track is restrained too, in how it unfolds and teases, builds to a near climax and then gradually slips back, before doing the same all over again before the final effulgence around 18 minutes. It might sound odd to hear Sunn O))) described as music that has at its core a deep eroticism, but it's something I have thought about before and, without giving more away than is strictly necessary in a review most likely consumed in the workplace, something that might be worth experimenting with in the company of a loved one in the privacy of your own home.

Closer 'Novae' features Guðnadóttir on haldrophone, an instrument that according to Google search results exists only in the Sunn O))) Life Metal universe and about which little is known except it is "enigmatic". Ha! Nevertheless, after the passage of guitars in fierce gurgling tumult, whatever the instrument is seems to add a wonderful droning wash to the gravelly interlude that comes afterwards and before the final, explosive passage that brings Life Metal to a close.

This is a record that does exactly what its title promises, a vibrant, bright, beautiful collection of overpowering sound and immense delicacy that is, once again, proof that those who reduce the Sunn O))) concept to being a two-riff-pony hiding behind daft cowls are missing the point. Moreover, it's arguably the most fun Sunn O))) have ever sounded – and what could be more alive, or more metal, than that?