In his review of Life Metal, the Sunn O))) album released earlier this year, our own Jake Cole wrote that the band’s, at the time yet-to-be-released, follow-up Pyroclasts had been “tagged as a more reflective album, a surprising statement given that [Life Metal] feels like the group’s most ruminative, contemplative release.” This was true when the review was published. One could contend that it still is, for Pyroclasts goes beyond rumination and contemplation out to a point of unknowing, where sense is obliterated by sound.

The primary reason for this is that Pyroclasts is the result of a conscious practice observed during the recording sessions for Life Metal. Describing this practice, the band states that “all of the day’s musical participants would gather and work through a 12-minute improvised modal drone at the start and or end of the day’s work.” The impetus for doing this musical work under these specific constraints was to encourage “a deep opening or closing” for that day of recording and “to connect/reconnect, liberate the creative mind . . . through the practice of sound immersion.” In releasing these improvisations as an album, Sunn O))) invites the listener to take part in this practice, extending it beyond the walls of the studio.

Ten years or so ago there was a popular genre of YouTube video that would transform pop songs (Justin Bieber was a favorite target) into shimmering, fragmented digital artifacts by slowing them down to an absurd degree – 800%, 1000% etc. Sunn O))) have done something like that, here, but with the basic unit of metal: the riff. One wonders what these tracks would sound like if their speed were multiplied. While this would be a diverting experiment – illuminating the movement of the music – what makes these tracks alluring and transfixing is their stripping down of metal to something like its Platonic ideal.

Album-opener “Frost (C)” set the tone, beginning with a single tone that starts clear and goes wobbly. It’s slowly joined by another tone until right around the minute mark the sound goes chthonic. The track, like the rest of the album, is entirely free of vocals, but there is a sound buried in the mix that can only be compared to arctic wind. “Kingdoms (G)” begins more ominously with a series of low thrums. They turn to deep static and a clear high tone – an almost melody – invades the track. It is hard to say whether the track has any riffs in the classic sense, but it is at least haunted by the notion of riffs. The track “Ampliphædies (E)” mines much the same vein – thought the sound here is consistently darker, the clouds closer together and admitting little sunlight. “Ascension (A)” closes the album and both its key and sustained tone call to mind the tuning of an orchestra, though a perverse one. The track’s placement on the record may be a nod to this. Like Lovecraft’s eldritch beings – composed of an indescribable geometry – these “songs” defy language. They must be heard to be, well, heard.

The outcome of these recordings is an intricate and vast soundscape. This kind of music – glacial, colossal – lends itself easily to critical cliché. It could be compared to the obelisk in 2001, or the Sphinx of Giza, or the heads at Easter Island. It is both overwhelming and unknowable in its depth. There are guitars, but it is easy to forget about them in the cyclone of sustain and decay – the origin point for these sounds becomes lost. A text without an author, a note without an instrument.

Pyroclasts is an invitation to openness and stillness in a genre that is not often associated with these qualities. The band invites the listener, too, into a conversation between this album and Life Metal. They ask us “to use Pyroclasts as a lens to review and reexperience the complexity” of Life Metal, suggesting listeners even “interrupt its sequence with Pyroclasts.” Enacting this combination promises “abyssal” and “hallowed” rewards – the band’s words – for those who do so. It is difficult to argue with this conclusion. The two releases – their interconnections and divergences in both sound and space – combine to make up one of the most consequential metal releases of the decade.

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