In the beginning, there was darkness. Nothing. A total absence. Then, in a brilliant flash, something. The foundation of everything. Clouds of life’s most basic elements roiling slowly through once empty space. Eons upon eons pass, then stars. Planets. Water. Vegetation. Life creeping slowly, desperately, onto the beaches from the sea. Tectonic plates shift with unrelenting resolve beneath the surface of the earth, breaking the land apart in a titanic ballet of separation as bipedal hunter-gatherers segment into tribes, building villages. Ships. Towns. Cities. Technologies. Industry. War. Order. Chaos. All generated from a single event, expanding ever forward and outward. And on it goes, moving slowly and deliberately through the vastness of the cold, unknown universe with unknowable purpose.
Journeying through Sunn O)))’s discography feels a lot like listening to the process of evolution unfold. Tectonically heavy, unrelentingly loud, almost unbearably slow, and perpetually awe-inspiring, it’s difficult for me not to imagine the enormity of the cosmos with cinematic clarity as the band’s music serenades me into some inexplicable state of catharsis. Since the release of their first record back in the year 2000, there have been few, if any, bands that have been able to match their brilliant (and highly taxing) blend of drone and doom metal. Their live shows, now legendary, have become something of a ritualistic experience, mixing fog-drenched atmosphere with abject noise worship that participants can feel in their bones. The band is a unique and highly divisive firebrand in the world of modern metal, and their decades-long march toward drone-doom domination remains almost completely unimpeded into 2019. And with their eighth full-length recording, Life Metal, the band have concocted what is potentially their most transfixing, illuminating, and inspired record to date.
Discussing the music of Sunn O))) is in many ways a tactical exercise in subtlety. Album to album, the band incorporate sometimes infinitesimally small changes to their base-layer of all-encompassing noise. This can include changes in tone and production (such as the technical developments between the band’s debut and Flight of the Behemoth) or the addition of new genre sounds into the mix (the best example here being the black metal overtones of Black One). But in all of these stylistic and songwriting dalliances, the band’s core sound remains for the most part completely untouched, building riffs one excruciating stroke after another, allowing each chord, each note, to develop over vast spaces of time. Life Metal does not change this general formula, though it does add embellishments that not only heighten the band’s ability to effectively reach emotional/spiritual highs, but also bring a somewhat new dynamic to the band’s songwriting style: copious amounts of musical light.
Consider “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths” as a near-perfect introduction to the band’s newfound sense of wonder. The sound of horses charging, whinnying powerfully, kicks off the track on an atmospheric note worthy of its Norse mythology-based title. A steady, almost imperceptible drum beat thrums deep in the background until that first riff hits and listeners are transported once more into the band’s unique world of pervasive guitar strums. But even here, the tone is different. Looking back at the more triumphant moments of the band’s discography, like “Big Church” from Monoliths and Dimensions or “Brando” from their collaborative album Soused with Scott Walker, still won’t prepare listeners for the tone of Life Metal, which attaches itself to a sense of primordial light that has been generally shunned by the band’s most memorable work. The songwriting on this track soars into a stratosphere of musical elation (at least according to Sunn O))) standards), ending sections of the gargantuan track on high notes that smack more of Sleep or Om than anything else. Coupled with Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soft vocal intonations replacing the brash, deeply dramatic roars of Attila Csihar, the track feels like a breath of exultant fresh air when viewed in the prism of the band’s previous work.
Part of this new sense of grandeur is accomplished through the fantastic production work of Steve Albini, who is such a perfect match for the band that it’s a wonder that it took them this long to work together. Rather than reveling in the most oppressive aspects of the band’s sound, Albini brings out the most melodically transcendent qualities of each instrument, allowing the album’s opening track (and each other composition on the record) to feel like it’s constantly ascending rather than descending in emotional tone. While the entire record is slathered with guitar feedback and noise, Albini’s production feels both airy and open, creating a sense of space that allows these compositions to feel exploratory and unconstrained. All of this results in one of the best sounding records the band have yet released.
Subsequent tracks on the record build on the foundation set by “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths” in truly satisfying ways. “Troubled Air”, on top of including some of the band’s most titanic riffage in recent memory, gives composer Anthony Pateras’ pipe organ plenty of room to breathe, affording the music an air of religiosity that the band has never so pristinely achieved. “Aurora” follows a similar trajectory over its nearly twenty-minute runtime, ebbing and flowing through riff after riff with a revelatory, if measured, energy. But the album’s crown jewel is its closer, which includes over twenty five-minutes of some of the band’s most utterly bombastic songwriting to date. Add in a captivating drone-heavy second-half that has to count as one of the slowest-burning builds to a riff in the band’s history and you have yourself a closer for the ages.
The first of two albums Sunn O))) will release this year, Life Metal plays like a collection of tracks written by a band renewed. The achingly slow and fastidiously deliberate nature of their core sound remains, but is here transfigured into something more triumphant than elegiac, ascending to the highest emotional peaks they have thus far been able to reach. It’s a definitive statement of continued relevance by a band that has shaped the landscape of its chosen genres more than any other, and displays a sense of elation in the execution of some of the music world’s most magmatic compositions. While still the same noisemakers they’ve always been, Life Metal shows the band in a state of evolution that’s propelling them ever forward, however slowly, with purpose and undeniable conviction. It’s one of the band’s best records, and one of the most satisfying listens of the year. Long live the kings of drone.
Life Metal is available now via Southern Lord Records.