I have to confess that I was somewhat nervous about this gig. Were my earplugs up to the job, would I make it through the whole thing, etc. And this isn’t something I say lightly. Over seventeen years of gig-going, and hundreds and hundreds of bands I’ve seen, there are few that I’ve seen, I thought, that would be as loud as Sunn O))), or so I was told.
They were right.
First up, though, there was Nurse With Wound. I’ve never really got ’round to listening to much of the band in the past, and while I was aware of their legacy and lengthy career, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. What we actually got was a bizarre mix of the boring and sublime, the dull and the fascinating. At points barely audible electronics flickered around the vast space of KOKO, at others there was a sonic attack directly at the ears. At other points joined by a bizarre near-performance artist enunciating freakish verbal imagery (“The engine ouroborates“). It was even danceable at points. Certainly a fascinating set, but I must admit that it didn’t make me want to go and listen to more.
Sunn O))) don’t really allow you to sit back and consider what they do. Despite the music being glacially slow, beatless and stark, it is played at such phenomenal volume that you don’t just listen to Sunn O))). You feel it. Not just in your feet, but in your whole body. At points, even my teeth were vibrating.
It is music that takes the whole ideas of slow and heavy to almost comical extremes. Never mind going to eleven, their twelve (!) amp stacks onstage seemed to go way beyond that, deep, drop-tuned chords being played and then reverberated around the room for what felt like an eternity, and the pushing of limits stretched to there being no gap whatsoever between songs, each lengthy track – more of a movement – flowing directly into the next.
There was then the difficulty of making out what was going on onstage. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, and a third cohort, were shrouded in their black robes, and further shrouded by more dry-ice than I’ve ever seen at a gig, meaning only the odd shadow and raised fist, or guitar, were visible in the murk. Star of the show onstage, when he finally arrived, though, was Attila Csihar.
He didn’t even appear onstage until about twenty-five minutes in, and even then I thought I was imagining things when I first saw a flash of his (corpse-painted?) face from out of the dry ice. Even just these occasional visions of him made the atmosphere that bit more tense, as he then began to loom wraith-like over his microphone stand. And as the slow-churning maelstrom of noise began to whip up around him, it began to appear that hell was starting to open up onstage, and Satan himself had a voice.
But aside from the mental imagery (and nightmares) that Sunn O))) invoke, it is perhaps notable that aside from Attila’s occasional lyrical contributions, they don’t lean on any of the usual extreme metal clichÃ©s. Well, aside from the robes, perhaps. And that is probably because the music, particularly at this volume level, is terrifying enough. I won’t lie – their eighty-five minute set was an endurance test on a whole other level from pretty much any other band I’ve ever seen (Whitehouse, Swans and Greyhound all paled in comparison to this), that certainly appeared to defy laws of time and space, fucking with your senses to the level that my ears weren’t ringing when I woke up the next morning. I was so dizzy I could barely stand.
Ok, fine – this band are not for everyone, but for anyone who thinks that they need to hear something different, something challenging, this band could be for you. A gig that will pretty much make any other this year and next seem a bit quiet. Frankly they make all other so-called extreme metal seem a bit puny, in retrospect. Remarkably, they do this by slowing everything down, and making it even louder. The way to be more extreme than everyone else actually turned out to be dead simple. Who knew?
Either way, I’m not sure my body could stand another ninety minutes of this in the future. But I was glad I did the once – it isn’t often a band at the peak of their sonic powers challenge you like this.