Life Metal, by Sunn O)))

Drone, Metal / Southern Lord / April 26, 2019 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom

If you want to be a bit cynical, you can say that Sunn O))) have not done much more than simply ripping off the slow and heavy soundscapes on Earth’s classic Earth 2 (1993) – a crucial influence that the two band-members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson never have attempted to downplay. Yet even though it certainly is true that the basic formal profile of Sunn O))) should be directly traced back to this early Earth-classic, I would nevertheless not suggest that the band has not contributed with something. In particular, it seems to me that their artistic methodology may be understood in terms of what recently has been theorised as the platform in some contemporary critical writing on digitalisation and the internet; a platform being understood as a generic intermediary that allows different groups to interact (typical examples today being social media, such as Twitter and Facebook).

Platform-thinking was explicitly experimented with in music by Holly Herndon with her album Platform (2015). But whereas Herndon’s approach was as much conceptual and visual as it was sonic, in Sunn O)))’s case it is primarily sonic – or formal in that the abstract and generic character of their core sound (their massive wall of guitar-feedback) lends itself really well to a platform-based approach insofar as it provides an excellent sonic space for other musicians to interact with and through. This is something that the band obviously has understood very well, insofar as all their albums other than the early ones are packed with guest-appearances by other musicians (rather than the band just doing the same kinds of basic drone-experiments over and over again, for even though I certainly do not want to undermine the greatness of minimalism – or of Sunn O)))’s almost physically overwhelming music – I nevertheless think that would become quite predictable pretty soon). From Boris, Merzbow, John Wiese and Oren Ambarchi, to Ulver, Attila Csihar, Wrest and Malefic – the band’s use of great collaborators (usually from experimental music and black metal) is indeed one of its core strengths.

One may obviously have some reservations about one of the core strengths of a band being that they provide a space, or platform, for other musicians. I certainly do too, and I am not suggesting that this should be understood as some kind of grand methodology for artists to take up. However, I do think that it makes sense for a band with the sonic profile of Sunn O))) to utilise such a methodology – and that they have been doing it really well on some of their greatest albums, such as Black One (2005), Altar (2006), Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) and Soused (2014, with the late Scott Walker). The same can be said about their latest album Life Metal (a joking reference to death metal), which includes guest appearances by Anthony Pateras on pipe organ (on the great second track ‘Troubled Air’), Tim Midyett on bass and their regular collaborator Tos Nieuwenhuizen on Moog synthesiser. But the guest who really steals the show on this album is undoubtedly the great cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir (who has collaborated with bands like Múm and Pan Sonic, released a string of solo albums on Touch and more recently composed film music with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson and on her own). She appears on cello, vocals and haldorophone on two tracks: on the opener ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ and on the epic fourth and final track ‘Novae’. The first track is my favourite on the album and it certainly exemplifies the positive feedback-loop of the platform-approach when successful, in that it provides novel angles on both Sunn O)))’s and Guðnadóttir’s music through a kind of mutual amplification. In contrast, the third track ‘Aurora’ – a basic drone-track without any (distinctly audible) guest appearances – is the weakest on the album.

It is also worth mentioning the recording of the album, which was done with the veteran producer Steve Albini at his Chicago-studio Electrical Audio. This is Sunn O)))’s first all-analogue record – editing and mixing included – and it is thus not based on the digital layering of guitar-tracks that the band have utilised for earlier records. Instead, it was all done in one takes during a span of two weeks at Electrical Audio (along with tracks for an early follow-up, entitled Pyroclasts, to be released later this year). I am not an expert on sound production, but to me the record sounds extremely good. As expected, it is heavy, slow and loud – but at the same time also extremely rich in details and with the contributions of the guest-musicians brilliantly integrated into Sunn O)))’s massive drones. Again, it is the opening track that stands out the most for me – which epically begins and ends with samples of a galloping horse and has Guðnadóttir’s low-key, hypnotic vocals beautifully surrounded by the electric storm that is Sunn O)))’s drones. It is an amazing track on an overall great album that brilliantly showcases some of the core strengths of the band.