Sunn O))) & Ulver
01. Let There Be Light
02. Western Horn
03. Eternal Return
[Southern Lord Records]
Drone is a remarkably niche genre that few people have the patience to properly digest. The whirring sustained chords and minimalistic compositions understandably don’t sit well with listeners looking for the instant gratification that your average music experience allows. Similarly, avant-garde music holds the boundaries of music up for scrutiny and is often off-putting because of its esoteric — and often challenging — qualities. Two bands perhaps most infamous in these fields are American doom duo Sunn O))) and Norwegian shapeshifters Ulver. Frequent allies as they are, Terrestrials marks the pairing’s first truly extensive collaborative effort. Better late than never.
Ulver has seen near-universal acclaim not only in their early work as a black metal outfit, but also with the band’s later efforts dabbling in electronic, folk, and neo-classical compositions. Sunn O))), however, have garnered a polarizing reaction throughout their career; despite earning a dedicated fanbase and an undeniable legacy as a highly influential act, they’ve somewhat become the poster-boys of artistic excess and pretension. It’s easy for the uninitiated to boil Sunn O))) down to “feedback for 20 minutes,” but there is certainly deeper movement there worth exploring. Thankfully, Ulver’s high-brain extravagance and Sunn’s primitive-yet-spiritual resonance compliment each other perfectly for a seriously remarkable score of cinematic soundscapes.
Terrestrials is no mere by-the-books drone release where the listener is washed in endless buzzing guitars or noise. Instead, this record is more like an odyssey, acting as an ethereal experience. The exotic ‘Let There Be Light’ is a picturesque soundtrack evocative of its title, with phasing drones, delicate piano, and moaning trumpets emulating a gradual upward movement to create the scene depicted on the record’s abstract cover art. ‘Western Horn’ takes a cue from its title and features meandering horns and didgeridoo, bringing to mind a psychedelic indigenous spiritual journey.
The most powerful of these tracks however is the beautiful ‘Eternal Return.’ A solemn chord progression cycles through bass drones and weeping strings before picking up towards a climactic rise just slightly past the halfway mark. A slowly arpeggiating synth melody and haunting chants form a chilling de-facto chorus before the song folds back in upon itself in palindromic fashion, albeit with much more emotional intensity. A fittingly chilling finale that will leave many wondering where the time went. The fact that a track such as this was created in an improvised fashion is quite telling of the chemistry and synchronicity these two acts have with one another.
It may seem antithetical in reference to an ambient/drone album such as this, but the collaboration certainly leaves more to be desired, in the best possible sense of the phrase. Terrestrials winds down under 40-minutes, which seems like the appropriate length for your average LP, but a collaboration this strong doesn’t need to call it a day after three musical movements. This is an album that is transcendent of its genre, its audience, and its expectations. If Terrestrials accompanied a film, it could easily carry an Academy Award nomination for best original score. If receptive and empathetic to the spirit of these three tracks, listeners can expect to be lulled into meditation, frightened, and then moved to tears. This isn’t some bleak test of patience; this is one of the most interesting ambient albums to emerge from this side of the music world, and a follow-up can’t come soon enough.