In this week’s Freak Scene, Jamie Johns freaks (sorry) over the recent SunnO))) show at Brooklyn Masonic Temple.
Before absorbing Sunn 0))), it should be noted that Earth was great. The long-running band, favorites of Kurt Cobain, have reinvented themselves and now invoke an almost Southern Gothic-esque atmosphere live and on record. There was nothing forced or overwrought about their performance; each note flowed and was allowed just enough time to breathe and reveal itself. Beautiful.
The Sunn O))) live experience is divisive, which was perhaps best embodied by the chunk of the crowd who barely made it through the first movement. That first part of the performance, in which loops of chanting monks played as the massive room was filled with fog, was a physical test after standing for hours watching the earlier bands. As the band moved its way through the majority of the tracks from Monoliths and Dimensions, you felt it. In order to fully “get” what it is Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, the core of Sunn O))), are trying to do, the live experience is necessary. It is a physical live ritual in which your whole body is engaged and your senses are blurred. The room is masked with fog, the performers hide behind druid robes, and the music is so loud you almost cannot think, but, and I say this with all seriousness, it looks really cool. No matter what the detractors may say, or how deeply I enjoy their records, it is undeniable that the image looks great too. Druid dreamboats or something, who knows.
Nearly every review mentions how blisteringly loud the show was. The band places the slogan “Maximum volume yields maximum results” on their albums for a reason, and this performance at Brooklyn Masonic Temple was by far the loudest I have seen them play. You could feel each note throughout your whole body and even with ear plugs in, my cochlea was violated.
The way in which they emphasize the performative aspects of heavy metal is its own particular brand of genius. They play up the theatrics and lore which have always made the genre so appealing to listeners. Their performance is a pastiche of heavy metal themes: ritual, costume, darkness, Satan, death. Not merely an imitation or homage—it is clear the performers are dedicated fans—but a retelling and recasting of metal. The group creates a potent, long draught of primitive drone that envelops you. Over the course of ten years, they have transitioned themselves from an homage to Earth (who now opens for them) to the bone-rattling death march of Black One to the glacial Perotin of Monoliths and Dimensions. Their list of collaborators is endless: John Wiese, Oren Ambarchi, Julian Cope, Kevin Drumm, Lasse Marhaug, Merzbow, Malefic and Wrest, to name a few. For this tour, they are playing with Attila Csihar (Mayhem, “duh”) and Steve Moore from Earth (who is not the same Steve Moore of Zombi and Lovelock).
And of course, there was Attila. Three costume changes for three wholly different atmospheres. He first emerged from the fog wearing a (comparatively) simple black robe and began the ritual with chants similar to those on “Agartha,” the first track of Monoliths and Dimensions. The second look I can only describe as a mesmerizing, apocalyptic mirror ball Statue of Liberty with laser fingers. By far the strongest part of the set, Attila howled, groaned, and bellowed as O’Malley and Anderson swung their guitars and produced massive guitar drone behind him. Attila later re-emerged wearing a burlap sack, a gnarled tree branch hand, a crown of thorns, and some kind of gooey looking clear sap on his face. He looked completely inhuman except for his eyes, which I could see blinking beneath the sap. A grotesque effect.
The crowd was tame (perhaps because they were overwhelmed?) in comparison to previous performances. Last time I saw Sunn O))), a bunch of drug-addled boys were in the front and, bless their hearts, they provoked the performers. Greg Anderson kicked one of the boys who got in his face, crowd surfed, and laid himself on the stage only to be groped by their adoring hands. Stephen O’Malley doused one of them with wine. Afterwards, I will admit to craning my neck to see both of them kick back beers at the bar. This is as close as most of us will get to the kind of fanboy adoration and heavy metal idolatry of the ’80s and ’90s. I would undoubtedly watch a new version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot based on the crowds at Sunn O))) shows.
These shows are events: people talk about them for weeks, bring chunks of cash to stock up on tour only merchandise. The internet is full of the raves of petulant boys on messageboards and people talking about “hypnagogic pop,” whatever that is, on their Twitters. Sunn O))) continue to assert the physical form of music. If you miss out on one of their exquisitely packaged vinyl releases, you are going to regret it. Yes, they do so in a different way than the smaller labels I typically cover, but the impulse is still there.
All photos by Taryn Looney
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