The oft initiated debate of whether or not a sequence of sounds can be categorized as “music” rages on unabated in the post-modern world, and there is no band that invites such debate more than the infamous Sunn O))). Over decades of incremental development, their distinct drone metal aesthetic has made them both a genre favorite and a reviled joke to many others. Nearly every thread of note that I frequent discussing the band’s sound devolves into a debate about whether or not it can be even be considered music. While I most certainly fall on the affirmative side of this discussion, I think such discourse misses a much deeper topic. It’s not whether or not a particular progression (or lack thereof) of notes should be considered music, but rather what is that sequence intended to do? By framing the topic in this light, I think we can come to a more thorough understanding of what it is Sunn O))) has been creating for the last few decades. And believe me, Pyroclasts, the band’s second record in six months, is more than worthy of such a discussion.
People come to heavy/extreme music for a multitude of different things. Being some of the most aggressive music on the planet, it’s not difficult to see why “meditation” may not be part of your typical metalhead’s daily musical retinue. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, as taste, just like music itself, is subjective to individual interpretation. But this is where Sunn O))) represent a unique niche in the heavy music world in that their compositions are not built to snap necks, or even move heads or bodies at all. It’s stillness that the band are concerned with. Quietude. Moments of intentional repetition and agonizingly slow-building tension that often never resolves itself. It’s music for the internal; sounds for the soul. Dissimilar from even their closest contemporaries Earth and Boris, the band’s music is starkly antithetical to the world it occupies, which makes it in many ways as subversive as any ultra-violent gorecore on the market. The purpose behind Sunn O))) is to bring calm, as loudly as possible. In my estimation, there’s no band better at it, and Pyroclasts is another stunning example of their modus operandi in full effect.
A collection of tracks pulled from the band’s Life Metal sessions, Pyroclasts contains some of the band’s slowest, densest, and most thoroughly mesmerizing compositions yet. It’s the band stripped down to its very essence, with as few frills as possible adorning their monolithic wall of sound. Over 44 minutes, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley transport listeners into their world with the patience of seasoned zen masters, serving as patient guides and unrelenting masters of ceremony. And ceremony is a solid description of what Pyroclasts feels like. Opening track “Frost (C)” provides scant introduction to the titanic deluge to come before giving way, opening the band’s sonic world to the listener. Similar to its nucleus Life Metal, this track (and the record as a whole) feel vibrant and alive, rising slowly to triumphant heights as the music progresses. This is some of the shiniest and most uplifting music the band has yet written. If metal had a church, this sequence of the band’s career would be the liturgy.
Writing about these tracks individually seems almost pointless, as the cohesion of these compositions could almost be considered a whole piece with brief interludes between movements. But the band’s guest list adds enough variety to the proceedings for these tracks to contain some level of memorability as separate entities. Cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir provides a subtle melodic backbone to “Frost (C)” and “Kingdoms (G)”, along with Tim Midyett’s electric baritone guitar, which adds an understated richness to Anderson and O’Malley’s intensity. The record’s second half, which could be considered a touch more experimental, features T.O.S. Nieuwenhuizen’s moog rogue and Guðnadóttir’s halldorophone making more appearances in the music of Sunn O))). Such additions don’t revolutionize the music, but add further harmonic disposition to the crushing weight of their standard sound. Taken as individual pieces or as a whole, Pyroclasts is nothing short of titanic in sound.
Which brings me back to what I perceive to be both the point and value of Sunn O))). I first heard this record while on an international flight. Such ordeals bring me a fair amount of stress, as sleep on airplanes is something that has eluded me my entire life. The triumphant hum of this record, with all its excruciatingly slow dynamics, brought me a level of meditative serenity and calm that I seldom experience on a red-eye across the Atlantic, and for me was emblematic of the mission and intent behind the band’s music. Which, to be completely fair, is just me. But that’s the kicker. Pyroclasts, in a similar manner to Life Metal, is a thoroughly insular affair, cutting past the flash and roar of more extreme music and instead offering a monolithic wall of sound that is as meditative as it is nuanced. If you’re coming to rage or revel in technical wizardry, there’s little of value you will find in Pyroclasts. But if you approach the band’s music as a meditative, perhaps even transformative, drone experience you won’t find a better companion and guide on planet earth. Pyroclasts completes what Life Metal started by being one of the most uplifting and deliberate releases of the band’s career, and for those seeking what it offers, there will be few records that provide more value this year. Another triumph from one of metal’s most enigmatic and controversial acts.
Pyroclasts is out now via Southern Lord Records, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.