Sunn O))) is oddly confrontational.
Revolution Hall, Portland, OR
Sunn O))) set off the fire alarm halfway through their show at Portland’s Revolution Hall. After pumping enough haze into the theater to the point where you couldn’t see the person next to you, the smoke alarm must have reached its threshold, turning on the house lights and flashing lights. The band played through the disruption, one or two members cracking a smile until the alarm ceased and the lights went back down again.
Touring in support of new album Life Metal, Sunn O))) played a nearly two-hour set that combined euphoria, ennui and anxiety. With more than 20 speakers pointed directly at us, the feedback came so heavy that hairs stood up on arms as if touched by static. The audience, a mix of crust punks, record dorks and even some bros, stood in appreciative silence as the group drifted wordlessly through its set bathing us in a steam of pure noise.
The show was an endurance test. Sunn O))) challenges its audience to give into the extreme length of its formless songs, the intense volume of the drone, the glacier pace of the entire evening that forces you to lean into discomfort. It was sensory deprivation and overload happening at the same time. Sometimes you couldn’t see anything. Sometimes you couldn’t hear. But you could certainly feel.
In the past, the group toured with vocalist Attila Csihar, but he was absent that evening. There was no frontman to focus our attention. Instead, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley stood before us in their cloaks and played one sustained note after another. Sometimes they raised their instruments up in feigned tribute or sipped from a bottle of champagne. At times, the sound of a trombone or an organ interrupted the monotony of stringed instruments.
Sunn O))) is oddly confrontational. They don’t egg the audience on with stage antics or inspire mosh pits. Instead, they force you to confront your limits. I made it about an hour at the front of the stage before ducking out for a glass of water. I had no desire to return to front, so I watched the last section from a seat in the back. Though the distance cut down on the immediacy of the music, I could appreciate the concert from more of an observer’s point of view than a participant.
Seeing Sunn O))) is the equivalent of a panic attack or an overwhelming drug experience. You know it will end but when caught up in the mist and the sound and the crush and the emotional exploration it doesn’t feel like it’s going to end. As the lights came up at the end of the show, the band removed their hoods and applauded with us. They also went through some sort of catharsis along with us and came out on the other side the better for it.