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Heavy Weather: Metta, Benevolence. BBC 6 Music: Live By Sunn O)))
Jon Buckland , December 2nd, 2021 08:33

A daytime radio session for Mary Anne Hobbs on 6 Music finds Sunn O))) at their most material and elemental, finds Jon Buckland

Photo by Ronald Dick

The noise that Sunn O))) make has more in common with weather than music. Greater similarities to seismic shifts than to a sold-out arena show. Terms like tectonic, monolithic, and sludge are slung into the viscous word soup when describing their sound. That’s no accident – it feels primordial. When listening to this it seems perfectly acceptable to make such highfalutin claims as “they are the gravity that stops Earth from collapsing.” That they commit such dominating aural assaults whilst threading these sounds with the heavenly, sky-cleaving, uplift that has manifested in their arsenal since the booming organ of Dømkirke’s ‘Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself In Clouds’, is a paradoxical notion in itself. Early Sunn O))) performances (both live and on record) were an attack of barbarically shoved frequencies. This iteration, originally recorded for Mary Anne Hobbs’ 6Music show in October 2019, is closer to having unfathomable depths of searing light grown inside of you, as if from a tiny luminous seed. A seed cultivated into an all-consuming star that expands out from within. They have always provided the roaring wind and the howling rain, now they have mastered the warming celestial rays of their namesake.

Unsurprisingly, this live document isn’t Sunn O)))’s first rodeo. They have amassed an archive of over 130 concert recordings captured throughout the course of their career. So many, in fact, that they had to start a dedicated Bandcamp page just to cater for their live output. Hell, this isn’t even their first BBC recording at Maida Vale. Back in ’04 they were invited to perform on one of the final Peel sessions commissioned prior to John Peel’s death. Compared to their previous outing, which sounds like a shredder going potty atop deep, flappy bass, Metta, Benevolence… is stocky. The mids elbow their way through the murk of the low-end and the trebly peaks are given space to warp and expand. 2004’s Peel session is a physical experience not to be written off, however. It is more than capable of palpitating your eardrums with such a convulsive energy that they’ll feel like they’re attempting to take off.

What Metta, Benevolence… so adroitly achieves is a reproduction of the battering sonic pressure weathered at a Sunn O))) live show. An experience that Harry Sword has referred to as “A juddering blanket of weight that was akin to Deep South humidity” in his drone bible, Monolithic Undertow. People often talk about volume in relation to their performances which, let’s be fair, is an intrinsic element, but it’s the condensing of sound by continual layering, live overdubs and loops, that form the tumultuous physicality. What is felt is practically solid. This is what separates their physical magnitude from, say, the maximal ear-clattering of Swans. Plenty of bands can crank their amps one louder but few pretenders are capable of recreating the sheer sonic intensity, the atmospheric oppression of a Sunn O))) concert.

Formed in the same year that Boris released Amplifier Worship, the twin axe assault of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson has been upsetting architecture around the world for over two decades. Outside of this core duo the line up shifts a fair bit from recording to recording. An idle flick through the various rosters of their nine studio albums reveals a rich spread of experimental and artistic talent, including the likes of Oren Ambarchi, Melvins’ Joe Preston, the Archdrude Julian Cope, Rex Ritter, Scott Reeder, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Malefic, Randall Dunn, and, of course, the cavernous growl of Mayhem’s Attila Csihar, who has been such a mainstay that it’s almost a surprise when his demonic whisper doesn’t emerge from the orotund squall. Throw in their collaborative records with Scott Walker, Boris, Ulver, and Nurse With Wound, and you’ve got an exquisite back catalogue to explore.

Thickening out the dense textures on their latest output are regular drone-accomplices TOS Nieuwenhuizen, Stephen Moore, and Life Metal/Pyroclasts abetter, Tim Midyett. The organ work and vocal pipes of previous tour support, Anna Von Hausswolff are also welcomed into the rumbling fold.

But O’Malley and Anderson themselves have long evolved beyond the doom of dark ravines to seamlessly intertwine the craggy facade of Pyroclasts with the magma sheen of Life Metal. Burbling electronics sparkle like spilled light glinting from obsidian minerals. Von Hausswolff’s wordless vocals reach out from beneath the churning silt, her voice sustaining a note equally as long as the bellowing amplifiers. Then, on ‘Troubled Air’, Steve Moore’s trombone ascends like a mournful soul as piercing feedback merges with halcyon spires to give that sense of soaring hope wrought from treated Moogs and manipulated Roland synthesizers. The layers appear to develop organically but really this is the case of intuition via careful praxis.

Where aliens once lived in the bass, sprites and songbirds presently frolic. Exultant organs ring out on ‘Pyroclasts C#’, reminiscent of Stephen O’Malley’s recent collaborations with Kali Malone. A bright hiss of spectral electronics threatens to send this into spacier territory but the muscular drones keep it grounded, like a parent dishing out discipline or an ayahuasca guide re-centering a voyage through inner space.

Here, space and time are given the top chairs at the head table. They provide the backdrop for a cleansing of the psyche. Fittingly, when we consider that the record’s title references a meditation technique committed to loving kindness, I find Sunn O))) to be a sonic salve. Spend an hour in their richly wrought tones and resurface with a mind uncluttered and a pristine clarity of thought. It’s a brief foray into the headspace evoked by meditators and the sober.

Let yourself sink into their thronged repetition. Let the seeds grow. Let the wind twist the great Redwoods. Let them sway and right themselves. Let leaves and water droplets patter across the forest floor. Let the roots hold fast beneath the soil, groaning and droning deep into the earth. Each struck string a reverberating trunk, each coagulated drone a looming cloud, and each bell-like resonation a shaft of golden sunshine lancing through the dirge.

In 2004 the music of Sunn O))) aired during the graveyard shift of a late John Peel show. It was too esoteric, too obscure for general consumption. Fast forward seventeen years and, with the help of Mary Anne Hobbs, their cacophonous tsunami flowed out of unsuspecting radio listeners’ speakers during the mid-morning slot, signalling their arrival into the consciousness of the mainstream and solidifying their ever sprawling influence. Like the earliest religions, now we are all devout Sunn O))) worshippers.