Beginning as a blackened doom-drone duo, Sunn O))) have evolved steadily for over a decade—not only in sound, but structurally, transforming into a group often best defined by its chosen collaborators. Founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s accomplices have included Merzbow, Julian Cope, Nurse with Wound, Attila Csihar and a slew of others. On this occasion, Scott Walker steps up to the microphone for a full album, Soused.
If movement from the far extreme edge toward a (slightly) more accessible sound has defined Sunn O)))‘s career, Scott Walker‘s trajectory has been quite the opposite. Beginning in the 1960s as part of a chart-topping pop trio, the Walker Brothers, he has since evolved into a powerful, if somewhat elusive, experimental musician. His more recent records feature sparse and challenging orchestrations serving as bedrock over which he unleashes his haunting and distinctive baritone vocals.
In some sense, if at least on paper, Walker and Sunn O))) might seem an odd pairing. However, the resulting music shows they are a natural fit. Opener “Brando” starts with a statement of almost rock-opera bombast but within seconds, the drone takes over. The sound of Sunn O))) is in many ways similar to the grim soundscapes of Walker’s own recent albums.
The listener will frequently notice Walker bringing some of his own instrumental influence to the proceedings. His penchant for odd percussion manifests on “Brando” in the form of a bullwhip. In another similarity to his solo work, the sense of space is played with as well. While most of the arrangement sounds like it is being performed in a large hall, the occasional vocal and guitar statement appear stripped of all reverb, placed in a different place in the sonic field than everything else around it. The effect is jarring, forcing the listener to immediately focus on that one element within the otherwise sprawling song structure.
“Herod 2014” has a more ritualistic feel to it. Electronic drums accent the orchestration, while a saxophone cries out in between the vocal phrases. Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars lay on the ominous drone thick and their “riff” has the occasional turnaround that hints toward the more metal end of the spectrum.
Third track “Bull” continues the ensemble’s explorations, embracing a more metallic approach, at least in sections. The guitars kick off with full-fledged doom riffage, while Walker delivers his harshest vocals to date. The song then disintegrates into a stop-start section before returning to the opening riff. Even during some of the quieter moments, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the momentum has picked up and the overall tension level of the album is beginning to be ratcheted up.
“Fetish” is not as overtly metallic as the preceding track, but returns to the ritualistic feel of “Herod 2014.” Scattered throughout the song are short sections of straightforward beats and riffs that hint at a more “rock” approach, bringing to mind the opening track of Walker’s 2006 release The Drift, a song titled “Cossacks Are.”
The album closes with “Lullaby,” an expansive track with wild dynamic swings and Walker’s most impassioned vocal performance. This song displays his immense talent for great sweeping grandeur, accompanied by a powerful sense of intimacy. His lyrics often engage the listener directly, even if the meaning isn’t always apparent. “Lullaby” appearing as the album’s closing piece gives the entire sequence a sense of narrative, if not through lyrics than at least in the rising and falling dynamics of each track, and the growing musical ambition of each song.
One can almost imagine Soused being a Scott Walker solo record, the sounds rarely pushing him out of his self-constructed comfort zone. But that’s not really a problem. Sunn O))) prove themselves to be a great foil for him to play against, and the resulting product is not at all awkward, as one might have feared when first catching wind of this collaboration. Their immediate compatibility is evident. One is only left to wonder not about Sunn O)))‘s next full length as much as who they will work with next.