The new Sunn O))) album, Life Metal, is one of two the duo-plus-guests will release in 2019. Its companion volume, Pyroclasts, will arrive in the fall.
Guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley and their various collaborators have been making Sunn O))) music for just over 20 years—the group formed in 1998, and released The Grimmrobe Demos that same year. Since then, they’ve released eight proper studio albums including Life Metal, a fistful of live recordings, a few EPs, and the odd collaboration. Through it all, they’ve maintained a consistent and instantly identifiable sound, but somehow their music is not just still interesting, but growing ever more so over time.
For those who don’t know, Sunn O))) make extremely loud, droning music that’s inspired by doom metal but also takes in elements of ambient, jazz, folk, ritual music, and modern composition. The foundation of their work is the extremely loud, layered guitars of Anderson and O’Malley. They play gigantic riffs and power chords, creating black clouds of feedback and rumbling distortion and letting the sounds float on seemingly forever; when one player or another strikes a second note as the first is still decaying, it sounds like an ocean liner shifting gears. On each album, they add guests, whose instrumental and vocal contributions have reshaped the music in all sorts of ways, from the rambling poetry of Julian Cope on 2003’s White1 to the spiritual jazz of “Alice,” from 2008’s at times almost orchestral Monoliths & Dimensions.
Their previous album, 2015’s Kannon, was a somewhat stripped-down return to early forms. It consisted of a single 33-minute piece broken into three movements, and while there were additional musicians present—several synth players, a conch trio, and vocalist Attila Csihar—the general feeling was of a ritual led by the duo. Life Metal is a natural progression from Kannon, and reveals the latest step in Sunn O)))‘s continuing artistic maturation.
It’s their longest album to date at 69 minutes, two minutes longer than 2005’s black metal-inspired Black One. The shortest of its four tracks runs 11:49, while the longest is a crushing 25:24. The album has an extraordinarily rich and full sound. It was recorded by Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, using all analog equipment, and the vinyl version is what’s known as a AAA album—analog recording, analog mixing, analog mastering. (I don’t own a turntable; I’m writing this review based on 320kbps MP3s, and will eventually buy the CD.)
It begins with the sound of galloping and neighing horses, sampled from a Bathory album. After a few seconds of atmosphere, though, the riffs descend like slabs of concrete falling from the sky. Life Metal features relatively few guests, but one makes a particularly strong contribution. Cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir has previously collaborated with the group live; she’s also composed and recorded film music, sometimes in partnership with the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and is a former member of Múm, Pan Sonic and Angel. She contributes vocals and deep electric cello drones and melodies to the opening “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths,” and plays the haldorophone—a cello fitted out with electronic devices that manipulate the sound in brilliant and unearthly ways—on the the epic album closer, “Novæ.”
While Guðnadóttir is a dominant voice on half the record, two other guests also pop up. Tim Midyett of Silkworm and other bands plays bass and baritone guitar here and there, and new music composer Anthony Pateras adds pipe organ to “Troubled Air.”
Like Kannon before it, Life Metal is a cohesive statement, best heard from front to back, and as loud as possible (whether through speakers or headphones). Twenty years ago, it was easy to see Sunn O))) as a goofy gimmick, and wonder how far Anderson and O’Malley would be able to push their idea. At this point, though, their work demonstrates an astonishing breadth and power; they’re undeniable.