Walker’s discography is defined by releases that, though separated by massive gulfs of time, nonetheless show a restless drive for continual advancement.
It’s difficult to capture the sense of ecstasy that rippled through underground and nerdish musical circles when it was first announced that Scott Walker, the avant-garde crooner who managed to get further and further afield of any would-be imitators with each experimental release, had teamed up with none other than drone metal gods Sunn O))) in 2014. Experimental music is rich with collaboration, but this pairing amounted to the closest thing that noise music could claim to a supergroup. Even amid the excitement, few could have imagined that the resultant album, Soused, would go down as a high-water mark in both artists’ discographies.
“Oh! The wide Missouri,” Walker intones at the top of opener “Brando (Dwellers on the Bluff),” stretching each syllable until it tumbles off a cliff into blackness below. This pronouncement is met with a spiky, trebly guitar pattern that sounds worlds removed from the usual Sunn O))) sound. Before you can question it, though, the bottom falls out, rolling out a wave of distorted drone that floats under Walker’s baritone like fog. Titled after Marlon Brando, the song, in true late-Walker fashion, homes in on the singer’s observation of how many classic Brando roles involved some form of violent debasement. This becomes the springboard for a descent into the hellish sadomasochism that by this point was a staple subject for Walker. “A beating would do me a word of good” he drawls repeatedly as a refrain, alongside the occasional mention “I am down on my knees.” As Walker spirals into feverish sexual abandon, the occasional, distant whistle breaks out from the gurgling murk of black noise like distant siren calls leading the listener to dash themselves upon rocks.
Sunn O))) long ago broke out of its drone trappings to incorporate a wide range of subtly stretched and warped influences, but those sudden outbursts of cathartic musical expression are an extreme rarity in their discography. The rest of Soused only doubles down on this departure; listen to this jaundiced, waterlogged horns that squelch around the margins of “Herod 2014,” Walker’s apocalyptic reimagining of the Biblical baby-killer in present day. As if drowning in the blood of infanticide, the track manages to sound both aqueous and bone-dry, using the underlying drone to prevent any solid foothold for the listener to grasp as things consistently lurch and collapse. And even in the moments of hope, the sudden eye-of-storm calm around Walker’s brittle refrain “She’s hidden her babies away” is met with a snaking bleat of Andy Findon’s acid-blurred soprano saxophone that strikes the composition like pure desert sunlight. All the while, a relatively clean guitar line groans downward like a wounded creature. Eventually, everything drops out to a light whine as Walker sings against pure negative space, making the subsequent return of noise all the more nightmarish.
Compared to the first two elongated dirges, “Bull” erupts with layered vocals that sets Walker against himself in a demonic call-and-response as a stuttering djent riff cuts through a wall of sound with a serrated blade. If “Herod 2014” played upon heinous Biblical imagery, “Bull” leaps forward to the religious conflicts that arose from holy texts, invoking the Crusades with references to Saladin, medieval clothing and Latin chants. The recognizable riffs offer a reminder that Sunn O)))’s origins lie in Stephen O’Malley’s and Greg Anderson’s more straightforward early days of doom metal; the track has a stomp that would be more at home on a Goatsnake LP than a Sunn O))) if not for regularly retreating into buzzing drone and distant church bells. “Fetish” could almost slot onto a Hyperdub release, its analog instruments conjuring experimental beats with scraping percussion, brass outbursts and guitar chords that warble like pitch-shifting synth lines. Even when the usual drone drops back in after a few minutes, it is complicated by perpendicular lines of hissing noise and other elements that give the song an almost swinging tone. Closer “Lullaby” reflects the soothing implications of its title only in the most ironic terms, crawling out on percussive clicks that resemble insect calls and the light squall of guitar. Eventually, a trumpet screams at the top of Guy Barker’s range as guitars grind out a slow, percolating pattern that shreds the eerie calm that preceded it. This stop-start no-wave Surprise Symphony gradually fades to zero, ending the album on dying bass moans and Walker’s voice catching in his throat.
Walker’s discography is defined by releases that, though separated by massive gulfs of time, nonetheless show a restless drive for continual advancement. And by the singer’s own admission, he saw Soused as something of a culmination. Speaking to The Guardian about a year before his death for the publication of Sundog, a collection of his lyrics, Walker reflected on his tendency not to look backwards while also keeping track of how much of his vision he felt he realized. “I can say the success rate of, say, Tilt, was about—from what I wanted to get—65%,” he told the paper. “And then the next album was 75%, and on and on until I hit Soused, which was pretty perfect.” Though not, strictly speaking, the artist’s final work, Soused would constitute his last album, and indeed it does feel like the logical endpoint for a man who had found the ideal collaborators for his pursuit of maximal-minimalism, of baroque drone. Its unnerving imagery and blanket of noise ensured that this statement was as troubling and uninviting as the rest of his mature work, forever enshrining Walker as one of pop’s most iconoclastic voices.