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SUNN O))) Pyroclasts gets 8/10

Southern Lord


Drone metal titans Sunn O))) return for their second album in 2019, following Life Metal, released in April. Sunn O))) have nearly single-handedly created their own micro-genre of drone or doom metal over the past 20 years, such is the distinctiveness of their sound and style. Other top shelf units such as Earth and Sleep also make remarkable drone music, but because Sunn O))) have eschewed drums and percussion altogether, and slowed the tempo down to a glacial pace, their path has taken them the furthest from the mosh pit. Untethered by typical rock forms, their albums have become increasingly experimental, perhaps no more so than their collaboration Soused (2014), with the late Scott Walker.

The twin 2019 albums mark a return to the basics for Sunn O))), but both are like visiting a parallel reality to earlier releases such as 00 Void (2000) or the White and Black releases (2003-2005). Whereas the earlier works plied on darkness, the 2019 albums practically glint in the sun in comparison. For both albums, the band was recorded by Steve Albini in his Chicago studio using only analog equipment, which really captured something of the essence of Sunn O))) as a live band.

Although the two albums were recorded during the same two week period, Life Metal was the ‘main’ album, and strove to paint galaxy-sized canvases with aurora-like chords. In contrast, the tracks for Pyroclasts were laid down in 11 minute takes at the beginning or ending of the day’s recordings. This is perhaps why the tracks on Pyroclasts sound unhurried and comparatively free of any overarching concepts or grand themes, although not quite completely slumming it.

From a casual listen at a distance, all four tracks on Pyroclasts don’t vary terribly much, but with Sunn O))) the devil is always in the details. Here the tracks swell and surge with electricity and verve. Unlike the dense and complex chords that feature in Life Metal, the guitars on Pyroclasts are more definite, and you can frequently pick single notes leaping out of the wider morass of sound. Pyroclasts also emphasises beautiful and hypnotic sustain throughout, with the guitars shimmering and shifting. The sound is fascinating to behold, and one that is best listened to with full attention on the minutiae of the textures and tones of the guitars.

The first notes of opener Frost sound almost tentative, but then the track opens up to a series of slow arcing riffs. There’s plenty of space amongst these beams of guitar noise, tuning the ear to a different kind of album than Life Metal straight away. In slight contrast, Exodus sounds more urgent, with a wall of noise providing the canvas that individual guitar notes or power strums splatter with sound.

Apliphaeies thrives off the warm and sustained feedback of notes that seem to hang in the ether as time freezes. Somewhere near the middle of the track, actual melodic guitar lines appear, but again these are in counterpoint to the din of the guitars that exist on a knife point of distortion and clarity. Closer Ascension bumps up the gravitas to that approaching the Life Metal scale, with a nice tone and a full-throated drone that courses right the way through the whole track to take the album out with a very long, drawn-out bang.

One of the side effects of listening to a Sunn O))) album is that although your mind and body are being pulverised by massive waves of sound flying off of walls of Marshall amplifiers like pieces of sheet metal in a cyclone, taking in these albums can really make you a better music listener. It’s not about the hook or the drop or video with 50 perfectly choreographed dancers, it’s about the texture of sound that’s not fundamentally different to the detail available in the contours of nature itself. If you care to listen, and are not put off by epic blocks of guitar drone. It is, after all, quite specialised and experimental music that most people will either get or don’t. It’s one of those kinds of musics.

Overall, Pyroclasts and Life Metal taken together are a testament to the success of the radical experiment initiated by Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley in Seattle over 20 years ago. All that time donning the robes and perfecting their craft, with a timely pairing with Steve Albini has produced their finest works to date with these twin albums this year. Sure, it’s just drone. But the devil was always more interesting than that other guy anyway.


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