Monday, July 27, 2009

Sunn O))): Live at The Varsity

I went and saw the monsters of sound, Sunn O))), a couple weeks ago and wrote this wrap-up for In Review Online:

Make no mistake, there is nothing like seeing Sunn O))) live. Call them doom or drone; they are a band that takes the aesthetic to an extreme. Led by Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, they have been stretching the limits of amplified space for almost ten years. Floating without the propulsion of drums, they’re music is rooted in the motto “maximum volumes yield maximum results.” Recorded they provide soundscapes so rich and dense you could easily get lost, and that is from the safety of your own couch. Hearing this music live is something much more transcendental.

Sunn O)))’s new release, Monoliths & Dimensions, is a musical departure for the band. Amongst the amplified guitars, they find room for the delicate sounds of strings, horns and even a women’s choir to stunning effect. You would think such nuances would give naysayers reason for pause. Apparently not everyone: disappointingly, one of the local capsules for the upcoming show described Sunn O)))’s music as inaccessible to unlistenable, sarcastically joking about the notion of the band playing “songs.” Her loss, I guess, but also everyone who decided not to go to this show based on an extremely narrow view of music.

The Varsity Theater in Minneapolis is a beautiful space that has, over the past couple of years, transformed itself into one of the coolest live music venues. Adorned with swags of velvet cloth and plush vintage sofas, it’s not exactly a space you would expect for a drone metal band. Although Sunn O))) has some undeniable ambient undertones, judging from the t-shirts—that’s what t-shirts are for, right—the crowd was decidedly metal. I got there early, looked at the crud for sale, and made my way up to the front. I started chatting up the friendly security guy, and asked him if he had been at the sound check. His eyes opened wide and then rolled around in the back of his head, and he said “In thirty years of doing this kind of stuff, I have never heard anything like that!” Exactly the answer I was looking for.

Stacks of amplifiers arced around the back of the stage. Hard-hitting duo Eagle Twin opened the show with an hour-long set of ferocious well-scribed thunder. The band agreed to do one more song, and Greg Anderson rushed the stage beside me (sans robe) to give Eagle Twin a cheer of camaraderie. Both the band and Anderson were laughing, and then he disappeared as quickly as he appeared. Eagle Twin finished with little fanfare, except for mentioning that their new CD, to be released later this summer, was for sale: “Buy 20 copies and sell ‘em on eBay. I don’t give a shit.”

This was the point in the show where the fog machines were turned up to eleven. O’Malley, Anderson and Steve Moore took the stage fully cloaked in black robes. Steve Moore was receded center stage on the electronic machine (I have no idea what to call these things anymore), Anderson right in front of me and O’Malley on the far right…I think. The fog and the robes impeded my identification, but it hardly mattered. Whoever was in front of me was swilling from a full bottle of wine, or maybe it was the blood of Christ. They immediately ripped into “Aghartha” and the sound was literally vibrating against every surface of my body. I have never been so aware of the physical presents of sound before. You could feel the sound pushing air through small cracks and holes around the stage. It was completely exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time.

Vocalist (or invocationist) Attila Csihar joined them after five or ten minutes, but even this is unclear. Enveloped in sound, time was also becoming abstract. Closing my eyes had a surreal effect, as if floating. My natural impulse was to lie down, curl up and enjoy this pulsating embryonic sound pod. I was not alone. Many of the people around me either had their heads down with eyes closed or were completely spaced out. The guy at center stage had sort of draped himself casually over the monitor speaker at edge of the stage. I was thinking that it was a really long version of “Aghartha” when I looked down at my watch and realized they had been performing for an hour.

The song that had started out as “Aghartha” transformed into an improvised monster of sustained decibel and depth. Csihar gave way to yelping as the band wrapped up an hour-and-a-half non-stop free-form experience. Near the end, Anderson and O’Malley impulsively each hung their guitars from two cheesy chandeliers on each side of the stage, allowing them to catch the reverberations from the air. It was an eerie image with the guitars hanging like dead members. Whether exhausted or overwhelmed or both, the crowd seemed stunned when the music had stopped and there was a pregnant pause before the outburst of applause. The four pulled off their hoods and gave a bow. Both Anderson and O’Malley gave Csihar a big pat on the back for what was an incredible performance. They were all smiling and confirming that the show was not just for the audience.

An encore was out of the question. I don’t think anyone expected it or wanted it. The experience, a sonic head-trip, was hardly something you would ask them to embellish upon. Although my hopes of live horns and violins were dashed, I was completely blown away by what had just happened. When I got outside to my bike, I’m pretty sure it took me 15 minutes to get my lock off and put my lights and helmet on. I was functioning a sheer unadulterated music high. The night stayed with me well into the next day as I tried to diagnose exactly what had happened. Was it spiritual? Was it cerebral? Or was it merely adrenal? One thing is certain, it was unlike anything else and that’s enough for me.


joetron2030 said...

Thanks for the review! Definitely bummed that I missed out on this show.

jmberes said...

Great, great review!

Kathie Smith said...

Thanks to the two Joes! Joetron, ya shoulda been there! And jmberes, seeing as you were there, the comment is greatly appreciated.