“Maximum volume yields maximum results” – an audio philosophy immortalized and forcefully carved in stone by drone metal group Sunn O))). Needless to say their show at the Barbican Centre in London reminded each and every attendee of this philosophy, flooding the venue with sonic concrete and drowning every man, woman and child in the ecstasy of the gaping aural abyss.
Opening the show came the classically trained Icelandic singer Hildur Guðnadóttir, armed with a heavily modified cello (which bore little resemblance to its original form). Her performance provided a taste of what was to come; her voice intoxicated the audience with its ethereal beauty, ensnaring the hundreds that sat in their seats in a wisp of smoke. Before long, this dancing wisp of sound developed into a great plume, as the modifications within her cello came into use, gradually massaging the doped crowd in floods of thick sound. Her hand waved in gestures suggesting there was some kind of theremin as part of the instrument – needless to say, its complexity required a great talent to operate. The performance brought Tennyson’s poem The Lotos-Eaters to mind;
“A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.”
After her performance, I noticed that her full-body massage had only made use of a measly 10 cones of the 120 that back-lined the stage, not to mention 16 amps being used to power them. At this point, I nattered excitedly with those I had come with, who were also giddy with excitement at the prospect of the trial of sonic fire to come.
The show began with a pulse of funeral mist; and then, Atilla. Robed and marked with a gold medallion, it was immediately clear to the audience that they were to expect a mystifying and numinous experience, one that many had thought to have faced extinction in the wake of disillusioning modern times. I was reminded what made Sunn O))) so special; the experience they brought with them. Although the band is shrouded in hyperbolic mystery, many outlets focusing on them as the “loudest”, it is clear they have much more to offer than mere volume. They have weight, in excess, in their sound, in their presence, and in their performance.
Atilla opened the show with just under 10 minutes of solo vocal performance. There is something about polyphonic singing which drags the mind from it’s body – as if a second language, one communicating simultaneously above and beyond that of man, is making itself known through the vessel of the human body. It is needless to say his communion prepared us for the looming blackness that was soon upon us.
When the four remaining members glacially swept across the stage, disguised in their low hanging robes, a great pulse of palpable excitement swept the room. And, before long, the audience were sealed in the concrete that came gushing from those glorious 120 cones and 16 amps. Where some bands go for quantity over quality, choosing to pack the stage with an unnecessary number of ear-piercing amps, Sunn O))) take the road less traveled by bringing both quality and quantity. The 16 coveted amps in use are irreplaceable – as guitarist Greg Anderson explained in a previous interview, the amps are as much a member of the band as any of the others standing on stage. I often try to avoid thinking about the troubles and expenses behind transporting the tube-powered members of the band when touring internationally.
There came a point where the two guitarists of the band, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, left the stage, clearing a space for synth operator Tos and multi instrumentalist Stembo to craft their own landscape of sound. Tos’ synth crumbled the audience, opening a bottomless abyss just below our feet, allowing for a moment in the show that may be considered by some other species as ‘meditative’. Stembo’s performance on keys and the trombone soaked the performance in mystery – I was left trying to make sense of the wall of sound that had been built before me, and what otherworldly force sustained it. Atilla’s vocal performance grew more sinister, muttering incantations dotted with inhuman snarls. I was reminded once again of The Lotos-Eaters, but conversely the latter passages of the poem, more reflective of my current experience than the former;
When the two missing members returned, the second wave of assault from the guitars seemed to crash upon us like a tide even stronger than before. My mind was lost for words as the two robed figures seemed to fall into their guitars again and again, pummeling the audience with wave after wave of the purifying fire. I remember watching videos of the show a couple of days later, convinced the footage had been put in slow motion in a sort of refusal to believe the ritual I had witnessed doped me into perceiving such glacial movements as normal. At this point in the show, it was clear that the members of the band had forfeited their human identities in taking to the stage. Now, they merely acted as appendages to the sonic doom, through which an incomprehensible skull-shattering truth was communicated.
At a point later in the show, Atilla turned and walked from the stage. Having watched videos of the group live before, I was envious of those in the audience that were unaware of what this might mean – nevertheless, his return to the stage shocked me no less than any others that shared the space of the room. Atilla took the stage in a costume that appeared to be made of countless shards of metal – as he swept across the stage and swiped at the air the whole getup seemed to sway with a colossal weight. One of my friends later described his outfit as a “Statue of Liberty heralding doom” – all I can agree on is that it needs to be seen to be believed.
Along with his change in outfit, Atilla also shifted his vocals from the former growls and otherworldly murmurs to inhuman sounding screeches and cries. The shrill cries pierced the thick sludge that had filled the room at an interrogative volume. A true metamorphosis had occurred; no performance I have seen has ever felt so distant from humanity. It was true now more than ever that the members of Sunn O))) were communicating the message of something much greater than themselves.
The show came to a close, and the members of the band derobed in receiving their much deserved applause. What was so remarkable about this was that the ‘illusion’ of the show had not been broken, rather the band returned to their humanity, equally as pleased and grateful as the audience for the ritual that had been completed with resounding success. As I left the venue, I was reminded once again of Tennyson’s poem;
INFORMATION FOR WHEN SUNN o))) ARE TOURING NEAR YOU CAN BE FOUND HERE.