Life Metal brims with the white-hot intensity of the duo’s early records.
The perpetual mystery of Sunn O))) is how a band so steadfastly, even parodically, devoted to stripping rock music down to its most basic sine wave element can constantly release work so distinctive from its other output. From the distended black metal deconstruction of Black One to the spiritual jazz that inflected Monoliths & Dimensions (to say nothing of symbiotic collaborations with the likes of Boris and Scott Walker), Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have always found ways to add expansive new tones to their walls of drone. Life Metal, their first record since 2015’s (somehow) back-to-basics Kannon, is immediately distinguishable in one obvious respect: the absence of vocalist Attila Csihar, the band’s unofficial third member whose malleable voice has added fragmented rasps and dolorous, operatic baritone to the group for more than a decade. It’s been a long time since the singer has not featured on a non-collaborative Sunn O))) LP or subsequent tour, and his distinctive presence has come to be a defining element of the band as much as volume and feedback. The lack of his guiding moods arguably makes for a bigger throwback to the band’s early days than even their last record.
Without Csihar to shape and orient the material, O’Malley and Anderson arguably sound more connected to their roots than they even did on Kannon. Life Metal brims with the white-hot intensity of the duo’s early records, when the primacy of the distended riff overrode all concerns. The pair workshopped riffs prior to recording, and their ahead-of-time preparation results in four focused bursts of noise. One of the great pleasures of the band’s work is listening for the small ways in which they shift chords just enough to divert their groaning loops of distortion into subtle spirals of compositional subtlety. Opener “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths” showcases this facet by dismantling the war march into a steady buzz of encroached danger. Bookended by unsettling, distant whinnying that embodies Odin’s eight-legged steed, the track slouches forth toward the listener, a slack interpretation on the Viking metal charge of something like “Immigrant Song.” This is invasion as inevitability, with some sheets of white noise sounding like the bleating of war horns. One is left with the sense of being within Jericho as the walls fell. Occasionally, a guitar will curl off with an extra bit of static or a sudden octave leap that maintains the gurgling intensity but abruptly shakes up the sound with bewildering spikes of passion.
Elsewhere, “Aurora” hums like electricity crackling through a poorly grounded wire. O’Malley and Anderson always use low, brown-note chords as a base for their material, but the feedback here consistently drifts upward into shimmering ecstasy, an impressionistic rendering of cosmic battle between light and dark played out in slow motion. The occasional loping belch of a bass guitar stretches the definition of the instrument as a musical anchor, casting the stuttered clang as some damned figure caught in the larger maelstrom. That the track is almost blissful is a testament to Sunn O)))’s abilities to wring pleasure as much as horror from their style. Likewise, “Troubled Air” is one of the group’s best studio examples of their capacity as live performers to twist and expand their palette into something approaching secular sacred music. The band’s music has always been psychedelic, but this track especially soars into higher planes, gently cresting and ebbing into something more akin to post-rock than gnarled sludge on which the duo built their name.
Of course, even without a key contributor like Csihar, Sunn O)) are still, as ever, a collaborative group, one that produces such distinctive releases precisely because of their ability to rework their mutable, elemental sound around the input of others. Hildur Guðnadóttir contributes ethereal vocals and cello to “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths,” adding a vaguely druidic, ancient property to the cod-Norse stylings, and she a groaning instrument called a halldorophone to closer “Novæ,” adding splashes of ambient reflection to the overlapping waves of feedback that make for the album’s most complex track.
Even more crucial to the album’s sound is producer Steve Albini, whose analog, laissez-faire style results in the most direct translation to date of Sunn O)))’s live power into studio recording. Albini’s no-frills approach backfires as often as it succeeds, but in Sunn O))) he finds a group so pure in eardrum-rupturing decibels that his style gives the floor to the gorgeous, psychedelic nuance in the band’s use of sustain and volume. The riffs buzz here more fully than they do even on the group’s other, impeccably recorded LPs, and the slight boost in sustain captures that ineffable spiritual quality to their work. The notes linger even after the next chord is strummed, giving the sense that O’Malley and Anderson are playing several different paths at once, confounding a sense of direction.
It has always been difficult to explain the appeal of Sunn O))) to reasonable skeptics. Only so much gushing about the ingenuity of eardrum-punishing, time-signature-obliterating deconstruction can pique the curiosity to immerse oneself into undulating sheets of noise. But Life Metal emerges as the best entry point for the group, the perfect balancing act between the fundamental base of their approach to drone and their remarkable sophistication as musical thinkers. A sister album, Pyroclasts, recorded in the same sessions is due out later this year and is tagged as a more reflective album, a surprising statement given that this feels like the group’s most ruminative, contemplative release. Each track brims with a sense of being considered and reconsidered in real time, the unusual pre-production rehearsal process allowing O’Malley and Anderson not to find their sound in the studio but to see where the material they’d already honed can go.