Posted by: Addison – Sep 13, 2012
Last Friday, while many Richmonders were partaking in the joys of the First Friday Art Walk, patrons of Strange Matter enjoyed a much more unusual treat. Legendary drone metal band Sunn O))), on their way to a live appearance at Raleigh, NC's Hopscotch Festival, stopped in town for a rare club gig. Tickets for this event were expensive, but sold quickly, and when Strange Matter announced that they were down to the last 25, I knew I had to buy one. If I missed out on this potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I'd be kicking myself for years. So I scraped up the cash, made the arrangements, and sure enough, within a day of making my purchase, the show was sold out. I spent the week leading up to the show in nervous anticipation.
Perhaps the ultimate drone metal supergroup, Sunn O))) was formed in the late 90s by two guitarists who already had considerable resumes in the world of metal and extreme music. Greg Anderson got his start in the 80s hardcore scene, playing with Brotherhood and the experimental post-hardcore group Engine Kid before forming stoner/doom legends Goatsnake. Stephen O'Malley was in Burning Witch, another well-known doom metal group who did a split with Goatsnake around the time Sunn O))) was formed. O'Malley has since also participated in doom/noise projects Khanate and KTL. At this point, though, it's Sunn O))) itself that has garnered both men the most fame. Originally just a two-guitar duo with no rhythm section, the band named themselves after an amplifier manufacturing company whose amps were designed in the 60s to help bands achieve adequate volume when performing in large concert halls. The silent O))) was tagged onto the band's name as a reference to the amplifier company's logo. The name was also a pun on the name of their biggest influence, Earth, another legendary drumless, two-guitar drone metal duo. Sunn O)))'s original goal was to create the loudest, purest, low-frequency drone-based metal music possible. Their live performances quickly became notorious for volume on a level unheard-of outside of stadiums. Legends of Sunn O))) performances inducing vomit and other bodily evacuation, in addition to causing permanent hearing damage, were circulated on the internet. Strange Matter's advance publicity for the show on Friday came with dire all-caps warnings about the necessity of ear protection, and the club even gave away free earplugs upon admission.
And yet, despite all of that, there was still plentiful interest in seeing the show. Even though the musical aspect of Sunn O)))'s live performances consists mainly of feedback drones broken up by extremely slow doom metal riffs with no percussive backbeat, the band's aesthetic has helped to make their performances unique and in demand. Performing in monk-like black hooded robes before forbidding walls of amplifiers, the band uses fog machines to create a thick, foreboding, seemingly supernatural atmosphere while they play. Their dedication both to the volume and purity of their low-frequency drone creates the impression that they are similar to those Trappist monks who dedicate their lives to making beer; the only difference is that Sunn O))) dedicate their lives to making noise. In recent years, the duo of guitarists Anderson and O'Malley has been augmented by Hungarian metal vocalist Attila Csihar, also of the legendary Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, and any of several different recurring keyboard players; for their Richmond performance, this role was filled by Dutch musician Tos Nieuwenhuizen. The four members are therefore based in four different countries (Anderson and O'Malley, both originally from Seattle, now makes their respective homes in LA and Paris), making their appearance under the same roof an even bigger event than it already was.
The tone was set for the evening immediately upon my entrance into Strange Matter, at which time I was greeted by Sunn O)))'s impressive backline of amplifiers. In addition to a wall of amplifier stacks running across the back of the stage, there were two additional semicircles of four full stacks each on either side of the stage. The double-layering of amps made it impossible to tell just how many there were in total, but it was a lot. At the front of the stage, opening band Dead In The Dirt's equipment was set up, and before long the Atlanta trio took the stage to deliver a quick, furious set. Their musical milieu of fast, angry, distorted hardcore was about as different as one could get from what Sunn O))) do without completely departing from the realms of extreme music, but this seemed like a smart choice for an opening band, since it'd be impossible for any band playing in a similar style to compete with Sunn O))) on their own turf. Better to book an opening band who'd stand out from what came afterwards, as well as having a sort of preliminary palate-cleansing effect; and that's exactly what Dead In The Dirt did, delivering a steamrolling set full of speedy riffs and blastbeats, with almost no pauses between songs. The bass player and guitarist split vocal duties, with the bassist's throaty scream contrasting nicely with the guitarist's low-pitched roar. Their respective vocal timbres reminded me of His Hero Is Gone's dual vocalists, which made sense in light of their band's similar musical approach. I also caught elements that reminded me of some of the raw crossover groups of the mid-80s hardcore scene, especially Corrosion Of Conformity circa their classic Animosity LP. On the whole, Dead In The Dirt made a favorable impression on the crowd, acquitting themselves admirably in spite of the obvious fact that almost no one was there to see them.
After a slightly-longer-than-usual set break, during which DJ ZLAL played an interesting mix of punk, goth, metal, and noise through the PA speakers, the fog machines which were set up on either side of the stage began to activate. And they just did not stop. The entire club had soon filled up with fog. I've seen other bands use fog machines during performances, but this was on another level entirely. I was about three rows back from the stage, but at the height of the fog, I couldn't see anything onstage except the power lights from Sunn O)))'s amps, glowing red and green through the thick mist. Sunn O)))'s set was supposed to start around 9 PM, but I can't say when it actually started, as there was a significant period--probably fifteen minutes or so--during which all that was happening was that a frightening tape loop, consisting of low-frequency ambient noise and an indecipherable ranting voice repeating the same several lines over and over, was being played very loudly through the PA speakers, and the room was filling up with fog. Finally, though, the door that connects Strange Matter's kitchen with the dance floor area opened, and out came the members of Sunn O))), fully decked out in their black robes. As they moved through the mist and the crowd to take the stage, the fog was so thick that, once they were onstage, I could barely see them. Anderson and O'Malley picked up their guitars, Nieuwenhuizen took his position behind the Moog keyboard in the middle of the stage, and they joined the sounds of their instruments with the tape loop that was playing through the PA, quickly overwhelming it with a level of volume unlike anything I'd ever heard. I was, of course, wearing earplugs, but the sound was so loud that it seemed like something I was more feeling than hearing. Within a few moments, I could feel the hairs on my arms standing on end. I felt tingling all over my body. The powerful, low-frequency soundwaves were affecting me physically in a way I have hardly ever felt before. I didn't feel sick, and my earplugs did their job well enough that my hearing never felt threatened, but nonetheless, this was sound as a physical phenomenon.
Sunn O))) played continuously for over an hour and a half, and it was very difficult to break down their performance into distinct songs, but nonetheless, there was incremental progress over the course of the set--if anything, it felt more like a lengthy classical symphony that was divided into movements. The first half hour was extremely loud, and featured the most overtly metal moments of the evening--at one point, the band achieved some sort of oscillating low-frequency feedback pulse, which was the closest anything they played came to having a percussive feel. Anderson and O'Malley continued to hold down chords on the necks of their guitars, but raised their right fists and began pounding the air in time with the powerful throbbing pulse, drawing similar fist-pumping and headbanging action from the crowd. This was the only moment where there was significant movement from the crowd. No doubt there were plenty of people in the audience who have, at other times, started mosh pits or headbanged to their heart's content, but Sunn O)))'s music offers little opportunity for such things; other than an occasional fist raised to the sky, most people just stood and stared.
About half an hour into the performance, Attila Csihar made his first appearance. While the fog had thinned at certain points during the set, allowing the members of the band to become at least partly visible onstage, Csihar showed up when the fog was particularly thick, and from my perspective I'd had no warning that he was even on his way to the stage. Suddenly, there he was, and for the next five minutes or so after he showed up, he did strange, ritualistic movements that seemed sort of like a dance. He had a small object in his hand that he waved around in the air and held close to his face at points. The fog was too thick for me to tell what it was, but I thought it looked kind of like a small camera, although it would have been ridiculous for him to stand up there taking pictures of fog (not that that stopped quite a few audience members from attempting similar feats with their iphones). Anyway, after several minutes of this, he began singing. Now, on a personal note, I've always found Attila's vocals on the admittedly-seminal Mayhem album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas to be frustrating. They aren't uniformly terrible (though they're close to it at points), but even at best, they don't really work. Therefore, although I know he's been singing with Sunn O))) for years to generally favorable reviews, I wasn't sure whether I'd be into his portion of the performance. Well, he immediately put my doubts to rest. As soon as he started singing, the guitarists faded back from full-throated feedback drones to quiet accents, allowing the vocals and a somewhat understated ambient accompaniment from Nieuwenhuizen to make up almost everything we were hearing. I was surprised to find that the next significant stretch of the performance was actually quite tolerable on a volume level.
The fog machines were seemingly turned off for most of this period as well, and by the end of Attila's lengthy vocal interlude, it was barely even cloudy in the club. Seeing the band onstage in their hooded robes as Attila, who began with a melodic chanting vocal that made me think a little bit of Gregorian monks but soon mixed in guttural growls and roars that eventually dominated his vocal sound, engaged in his undeniably ritualistic singing and onstage motions made me think of what I'd imagined as a preteen in the late 80s, when the US's Satanic metal scare was at its height and most of the authority figures in my life were matter-of-factly warning me of the dangers posed to my psyche and immortal soul by the evil metal bands I listened to. At the time, I was quietly skeptical of the idea that the bands I was being warned about (Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue, even Bon Jovi) were really all that dangerous, but as a good Christian twelve-year-old, I fully believed that truly dangerous bands existed, somewhere deeper in the underground metal scene. Secretly fascinated by the concept, I eventually discovered those bands in the death and black metal scenes of the early 90s. But when I was twelve and had no way of finding such bands (because when I was twelve, the internet didn't exist), I had to imagine what they'd be like--and I always pictured something pretty similar to the middle section of Sunn O)))'s set at Strange Matter. Boy, if these guys had been around in the late 80s, the evangelical Christian fear machine would have had a field day.
Eventually, the lengthy vocal-dominated interlude drew to an end. The rest of the band clearly knew when it would happen, as the guitars roared back to life as Attila sang his final line. The fog machines kicked on too, and the show headed into the home stretch. At this point, I'd been standing still listening to drone-based music for over an hour, and once the fog machines had had a few minutes to work their magic, I was once again plunged into an all-encompassing mist that prevented me from seeing anything happening onstage. This was when my sober state became a definite disadvantage; my attention span started to flag, and I found myself zoning out and thinking about other things going on in my life for several minutes at a time. I definitely was still enjoying what I was hearing--the final segment of the show featured more loud guitar riffing, similar to the first movement, but with Attila contributing excellent vocal parts that really enhanced the general sound, and that was very cool. However, it was tough to focus on it as fully as I had an hour earlier; I'm sure those at the show who had partaken of cannabis or psychedelic enhancements were more able to focus than I was.
There was a definite climax that occurred during the last ten minutes or so of the set; the volume finally reached similar levels to those from the beginning of the set, when I could feel the sound impacting my entire body. The crowd, which had filled the venue to capacity at the beginning of the set, had seen multiple moments of significant thinning over the course of Sunn O)))'s performance--at the beginning, when people who had seemingly not quite known what they were in for realized just how loud the show was going to be and decided they couldn't handle it; and then again when the fog machines kicked back in after Attila's long vocal interlude, when people who'd gotten used to being able to breathe easily decided they couldn't take anymore of the gasping humidity--and this final surge of low-frequency pummeling launched the final exodus. Several people standing near me chose this moment to take a powder, and I could understand. In truth, at that moment, I was sweaty, thirsty, and had a headache from spending three hours with significantly more powerful earplugs in my ears than I was used to. But I'd made it as far as I had, and I wanted to see how things would end. I didn't have long to wait; after a few minutes of the loudest wall of crushing noise that Strange Matter had yet been subjected to, the riffs reached an ending point, and the guitars suddenly cut off; for the first time in hours, we could all hear again. After a few seconds of stunned silence, the room erupted in applause. It seemed that some people, falling victim to the standard delusion enveloping most concertgoers in the year 2012 that ALL live performances end with encores, thought that if they cheered long enough, the band would give us five more minutes of droning feedback, but thankfully they were wrong. Sunn O))) were smart enough to realize that an encore would have been worse than pointless, and to let their performance stand as it was.
My final verdict: it was amazing. Unlike anything I'd ever seen before, totally intense, and probably the loudest thing I will ever experience (assuming I don't die in a nuclear explosion). I can see why a lot of people out there scoff at the very idea of Sunn O)))--their music rewards focus and attention, and yet doesn't offer much in the way of accessibility. It's an unrelenting wall of noise, for the most part, and you have to not only be prepared for such a thing, but find it at least potentially interesting in the first place. I know a lot of people don't. But if the very concept of what Sunn O))) does isn't enough to scare you away, then you cannot possibly go wrong with seeing them live. They deliver the goods in every way possible.
By Andrew Necci; top image by Team Eight