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It took the night to believe
It’s July 2017. I’m in the Button Factory in Dublin. The venue is pretty much full, both upstairs and downstairs. The room is filled by clouds of dry ice and a deep vibration that is coming from everywhere. Nobody in the crowd is jumping around or moshing. Many people have earplugs. We are all facing what we hope is the band. Sometimes through the smoke there are hooded men brandishing guitars, moving in slow motion on the stage. A pint of beer is slowly moving across a table purely from the cacophonous roar of distorted sound surrounding us. Small objects like Beer mats are bouncing up and down. Posters tacked to the wall are flapping as if there is a gale blowing. It’s an ocean of noise. The noise is in my nose and mouth as well as my ears. I have goosebumps and I’m sweating. I’m standing still and I might have a heart attack. If I screamed right then I wouldn’t hear it. A man beside me is a veteran of many hardrock gigs. I recognise him as he has a full face tattoo. He leaves the venue after 30 minutes and doesn’t return.
They say you don’t enjoy a SUNN O))) gig, you endure it. That’s true. When I think of that gig, my ears hurt at the memory. In addiction recovery and treatment you are taught that pain has no memory. This is one of the exceptions. They were louder than the screaming existential obliteration of the midnight of the soul. They were louder than Motörhead and Motörhead were louder than everyone else.
There are four ways to learn about SUNN O))).
A). You can read this blog post, which I obviously highly recommend you do.
B). You can stream or buy one of their albums
C). You can watch a video clip
D). You can go to a SUNN O))) gig
Seeing them live is really the only way to experience SUNN O))). They started as a two piece band featuring founding members Greg Anderson and Steve O’ Malley. The other member of the band was their wall of amplifiers behind them. The band today have added a vocalist, a third guitar and what seems to be a metal Cellist.
Because of the nature of SUNN O)))’s music, metal fans either love them or hate them. This is probably what people who don’t listen to Metal, think all Metal sounds like. Are they even metal? The genre is called Drone or Drone Metal.
SUNN O))) were semi inspired by a Doom Metal band called Earth and they originally wanted to call themselves MARS, but that was taken. They glanced at the logo on their preferred brand of amplifier and said ‘that’ll do’.
Their albums are surprisingly varied in style from the otherworldly, meditative, vibrations of Kannon to Monoliths & Dimensions which is so heavy it had to be towed by several nuclear submarines from the depths of the Mariana Trench. I prefer their early stuff before they sold out and started scoring car adverts (said nobody ever).
What all their work has in common is that it is slow and heavy. There is massive distortion through the effects pedals and amplifiers that they utilise. They lay down layer after layer of sound. They do not use percussive instruments*, so there is no beat or timing structure to their arrangements. Vocals are sometimes provided by Attila Csihar, the Hungarian vocalist of Black Metal legends Mayhem. In this interview he explains the concepts behind three of their tracks which are, in summary, 1) Global legends of a hollow earth 2) the concept of ‘to consecrate’ and 3) The Nephilim, the origin of the planet Marduk and the swapping of the orbits of Earth and Mars. Mmmm Bop indeed.
(* there are drums on Altar, their collaboration with Japan’s Alt-metal legends Boris. They’ll have their own blog post later)
There are many critics of the band. I’ve heard the “someone thought they heard Sunn O))) warming up at a festival but it turned out to be a generator” joke a hundred times now. Is this even music, they ask? It’s just a bunch of random noises made by instruments and distortion. It’s just wailing and blasting sound at people. But that’s what all music is, isn’t it?
Can they even play their instruments properly? The answer to that is in Greg Anderson’s side project Goatsnake and Steve O’ Malley’s Burning Witch. They can play conventional hard rock and metal with scales and melody if they want to. I think they’re just bored senseless by it. Goatsnake (who I love and are one of the most beloved Stoner/Doom bands in history) have released three studio albums in 20 years. SUNN O))) have released 10 albums in the same amount of time.
What struck me most about the gig in Dublin, was the reaction of the audience after the gig. The band do not have a playlist for their live shows. Most of their gigs could best be described as a freeform lengthly jam session. You do not know what to expect and I suspect, to an extent, neither do the band. There is no break in the music during the gig. One piece of music blends with the next, like waves against a cliff. Attila disappeared for a while, only to reappear as his reflective cloak, spiked crown, laser pointing, alter-ego. What followed was the most bizarre & other-worldly section of the performance. I struggle to describe it so please take a moment to have a quick look at the below clip.
The word ‘ritual’ is used by SUNN O))) to describe their shows and when the gig or ritual that night came to a close the reaction from the crowd was one of adulation. Fans were grinning from ear to ear and toasting the band. For their part, SUNN O))) stood on stage with their hoods thrown back. Locking eyes and hands with the audience, their reaction was one of joy and thanks. After the sonic journey we had all been on for 80 or 90 minutes, it was wonderful to hear human voices again and laughter. The overriding emotion in the venue was that of joy. It felt like our team had just won the World Cup of everything.
SUNN O))) might not be a band you ever get into. However if you give them a serious listen, you may find that you’ve discovered a dark corner of music that rewards as much as it punishes.
Next week: Nightwish