HC#6_The Sunn AlsO))) Rises (live Nancy, 3/7/2019)

“I badly need some Life Metal in my, uh, life. Can’t – yawn – wait…”

It’s a time-honoured tradition of modernity to leave your dire situation behind for a moment (or forever) and go on a road trip and feel “real life(TM)” so that your changed vantage point may better enable you to fully realize the deadend of a life at the place you just left. For instance, you could go to Amerika with a German “K”, like Karl Rossman, Kafka’s OG “lost”. You could grab some fishing rods (no metaphor, probably) and go to Pamplona via the Pyrenees to do some trout-fishing and bullfight(er)-gazing to relive the importance of being Earnest Hemingway some expat named Jake. You could also hop on freight trains and ramshackle cars , drink lots of booze and ooze unearned yet timeless cool wherever you are, Kerouac style. Or you could, no pretensions to weird-, manli- or coolness, hop into a rental Fiat 500, as yours truly did, and do a road trip to Lorraine Belle Nancy and see the Sunn set (Punn intended). Let’s look at how it unraveled via some of the bad pics I took with my, erm, modest phone camera:

Of course, there is some sort of Sixties student cool about the Fiat 500. When you drove it in the Sixties, that is.
Upon arrving in Nancy centre ville and parking the car I immediately came upon this incredibly (but ever so fittingly, if you consider the meat-only menu) named restaurant not fifty meters away from the venue L’Autre Canal. I can’t help thinking that quite a bunch of Metal, Punk, Goth, Industrial/… bands playing L’Autre Canal, say, Carcass or, dunno, Godflesh? considered having a band photo taken with this backdrop. (Or pointedly not, of course.)
Sunn O))) sure understand how to create the hype via these warnings and venue staff issuing earplugs into the hands of audience members on entering. Given how loud it actually is, they might also be obliged by law/common sense to act as they do, though.
Opener Golem Mecanique sure had this admittedly cool posture down – standing in the light beams filtered through a blue pane of a Gothic Cathedral’s high up window like an ordained priestess administering an ominous ritual. She also had the drone concept down and played a 20+-minute track/set of one buzzing note temperately tweaked in volume and pitch at appropriate times (it wasn’t appropriate very often). Solemn, but also, you know, quite sparse.
Sunn 0))) had a decidedly bigger sonic palette, including the – barely visible on this pic – trombone center stage that was brought out in the last third of the show. The copious amounts of monolithic amp stacks, the lightbeams and the liberal use of fog – nothing surprising to anyone who has read the first thing about Sunn O))) – seem like a simple stage set up, but boy, does it ever work to evoke both a mystical, archaic, ritualistic situation and nature itself in its enormous powers – of the sea, storms, volcanic activity, continental drift, you name it. There’s enormity in this simplicity and the stage aesthetics fit the music that seeks to mime those exact natural forces to a T (ectonic shift).
Here’s a glimpse of the characteristic light dome and the ritualistic gestures Sunn O))) employ. The players’ arms hovering aloft for close to a minute, massive swathes of ultra-amplified chords wash over the audience. To attempt a description of the sound: You can hear and feel each string warbling and resonating when the pick slowly strums over them. It evokes the force of waves crashing against rock, a sonic and tactile experience.
The crowd barely moves at a Sunn O))) show. If not for collecting hipster cool points it’s also because, in all honesty, Sunn O))), despite ostensibly being a Metal band, do not make music to freak out to. But the audience’s stasis also works nicely with the analogy of the sound as crashing waves – which would make the audience the rocks the waves crashes onto.

The massive amplification Sunn O))) employ to exalt the sound of the guitar into a ear-shattering, body-moving experience and likening it to the vast forces of nature is the opposite of a new idea. In fact, to derail this live review for a bit, that is precisely what the just deceased King of the Surf Guitar, Dick Dale did, may he rest in power. In practically all the obituaries around the internet it is rightly remarked that Dale both wrecked dozens of ever-higher-powered amps in the development rooms of the classic Rock/Metal/Loud Music with guitars-outfitter Fender in order to finally get a sound loud and dimed out enough for his music that sought to recreate the massive force of the waves he was riding as a surfer. Same as Sunn O))) on two counts. You might say: but Dale’s playing style is the manic opposite to the crushing suppression that is a Sunn O))) riff (if you wanna call it that*). To which I’d answer yes, an inheritor of Dale’s playing style is maybe rather John Reis? A riffer more than a single-string-rider, sure, but he does his thing with the same mania, and he sports the same R’n’R quiff Dale used to wear in his glory day. I’d rather say that the mania and the accompaniment by bass, drum and vocals and the generic structure and arrangement of songs are just the things Sunn O))) abandoned to lay bare the purity of Dale’s ideas about the guitar and what, synaesthetically speaking, picture you could paint with it. In as far I’d say that in a worshipping manner, Sunn O))) are deconstructing Dale.

Dick Dale
Play the guitar slowly? I understand all the words in this sentence, but I don’t know what they are supposed to mean together.
RIP to one of the greatest punks before there was Punk. (Pic via The Guardian)

And rarely are ideas executed in such purity across Rock Music genres as in Sunn O)))’s music, which has made it easy for detractors to turn the band and the Drone genre as a whole into a joke if not artsy emptiness poorly masquerading as Rock Music (you can practically hear SSD scoff from the past). Despite the loudness it’s easy to skip Sunn O))). They seem, and to many they are, same-ish. That, in turn, makes it easy to miss what Sunn O))) are going for: the absolute essence of guitar sound, starting out from Metal as a template and, in the process of stripping away everything that is not the mimetic reconstruction of the force of nature, all but completely losing touch with their home genre. In that they essentially make program music. Their program is nature itself and although they seek to artistically and sonically re-create its power – shall we say predominantly floods, storms, quakes, eruptions, landslides, but rather not the chirping of a robin in the morning? – they do not frame it as catastrophic. They step back from the human perspective and play these processes as LIFE itself, not in the narrow biological sense, but in the sense of an animated being – Earth**, if not the whole cosmos – which is in the process of constant events that are often cataclysmic and always awe-inspiring to humans and just the way the earth crumbles on a cosmic scale. And that is also how I understand the term “Life Metal” they introduce with their upcoming album. (Other than it necessarily being a pun on Death Metal): The Earthworn Metalheads in Sunn O))) are all about life in a cosmic sense. Damn, that’s deep.

Bild könnte enthalten: Wolken, Himmel und im Freien
Get A Life Metal!

Every Road Trip entails the probability if not high likelihood that you redirect your steps back to where you came from. The Sun Also Rises was our starting point, a novel that devotes large portions to thinking about the manliness of bullfighters.*** Although bullfighting is a reprehensible practice, that has a safe spot in the top five of “customs that are more honoured in the breach than the observance”, I had been toying with the idea to compare Sunn O)))’s sonic force with bullfighting (I don’t know where I wanted to go with that, but the idea obviously came to me while thinking about how I could use more of Hemingway’s novel in this text. It was instantly obvious, however, that I would find the comparison lacking). But after unpacking what Sunn O))) seem to be doing, especially in the live setting, it becomes clear that while both shows have a ritualistic touch, a bullfight is essentially a heavily rigged game of Man against nature whereas a Sunn O))) show represents an utopia of Man (in tune) with Nature. I still dig Death Metal obviously (who doesn’t??), but bring on Life Metal already! (–> Coming April 13 2019)

On the Heavy Chettle Heaviness Classification Table a Sunn O))) show + Road Trip scores a Not Just Figurative Weight of the World to this reviewer, but your mileage may vary depending on how you can bear mimesis and metaphor.

On leaving the strangely still standing venue, territorial pissings markings of another Sunn-inspired dadjokester could be observed.

*I’ll make the point that on Monoliths and Dimensions there is one track that is built on a riff that is so masterful that you will fain forget it, once you have listened to it closely. It could basically be put in a Space Shuttle pod detailing the condition humaine as paradigmatic example of a riff. I’m talking of course of the backbone riff of Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia).

**[insert lame remark on how Earth is not only earth (our planet), but also the band Earth that is credited with jumpstarting (that’s a poor choice of word here) the Drone genre in the Nineties.]

***Phew, that novel, tho. Criticism of the “Dramatizations of Manhood in Hemingway’s In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises” (by Thomas Strychacz, American Literature Vol 61, No. 2, May 1989) contends that “Hemingway’s work severely disables the myth of the autonomous male individual” in close interrogation of the bullfighting scenes. That might be true, but not at first glance, which quite possibly leaves a superficial reading intact, that, in fact, glorifies bullfighting. In comparison to the show of bullfighting in Hemingway’s novel, I might hazard that a Sunn O))) show is, foremostly, not a performance of masculinity – and put that up for discussion. In a reflection of the novel’s title Ira Elliott writes (in American Literature, Vol. 67, No 1) that the “sun almost always figured as ‘male’ (and in most Indo-European languages grammatically of the ‘male gender’) ‘ariseth’ and ‘goeth down’, as does a male”, which, in impotent Jake Barnett’s case would imply a terminal sunset, making the novel’s title an ironic non-sequitur-analogy? Back to our Drone purveyors, however: whether or not the sun rises (which it actually doesn’t) or is (thought of as) male is of little consequence to Sunn O))) (again: discuss!) – to them it matters that it is the giver of life. Also it is really incredibly heavy.