Sunn O))). Gothic Theatre. 05.02.16
Feeling alone in a room full of people is common among those with certain social conditions, but it’s not something usually associated with live music. Even when attending a concert solo, there is an obvious connection between performer and spectator. People don’t go to shows alone unless that connection exists. Last night was an exception to that rule. Shrouded in black hooded robes, the members of Sunn O))) not only rejected any semblance of community, but they also drown the room in layers upon layers of fog, until every person in the audience was cut off from one another. Loneliness gave way to a slight case of claustrophobia as I hung on to the sounds of jazz that rang through a venue I could no longer see. Shadows in the shape of human beings could barely be made out through the thickening atmosphere of ominous clouds swirling in pale green light. When the sounds of guitars cracked like thunder through the amp stacks, loneliness and claustrophobia were immediately forgotten; everything that existed above the most basic and primal instincts was obliterated.
On paper, Sunn O))) are an experimental group who compose extremely loud, droning metal. At its core, the band is comprised of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. Named after their preferred amps, the duo formed the band in Seattle, Washington in 1998 as a sort of homage to drone-masters, Earth. Since their formation, Sunn O))) have released quite a few albums, demos, eps, and live documents, as well as various collaborations with other like-minded artists. Meticulously designed vinyl packages seem to be their format of choice…and their cult-like followers buy them up as fast as they can be pressed. That being said, not everyone understands or appreciates the band. Polarizing is a nice way of saying that for every person who buys a piece of vinyl, there are ten people who will question that person’s sanity. Before last night, I was one of the very few who fell somewhere in the middle. When I interviewed Anderson for a piece about his Southern Lord record label, he explained Sunn O))) as “an experiment with tone and sound.” At the time I felt that was a great way of answering a question without really providing an answer, but now I realize he really wasn’t trying to be vague. There is just no way to explain the project with mere words. For better or worse (depending on what side you fall on), Sunn O)))’s sound transcends language.
During the calm before the storm, I was able to ascertain a few details about the stage setup. There were plenty of amplifiers (Sunn, Orange, and others), but they weren’t stacked to the sky or anything. There were guitars, a few mics, a keyboard setup, and a separate Moog synthesizer. There was also a trombone. The fog machines preceded the band by a half hour and continued to run throughout the set. There were five robed figures on stage during most of the performance, although each one would take a leave of absence if they weren’t needed for a particular passage. The room and stage were completely immersed when the music started, but the air would clear just enough to glimpse Anderson or O’Malley hoisting their guitars above their hooded heads, before giant gusts of fog would hide them from their audience once again. There was no escaping the noise though. Despite having less amps that I’ve seen at others shows, it was the loudest thing I have ever experienced; louder than my previous loudest show, Swans. It wasn’t just single guitar chords held from here to eternity either; the synth, keys, and horn all added distinct elements that made the droning music move forward (and up and down and around) despite the lack of percussion or rhythm. Attila Csihar’s vocals didn’t appear until almost the 20-minute mark, but when they did, the croaked sermon served as a wakeup call to those who had gotten lost within their own vibrating bodies.
This is the point where I’d usually describe the setlist and stage banter, but that’s just not possible here. I’m not sure there even was a setlist, and banter would have been completely out of place. The hour and a half set seemed to be comprised of one long composition, with multiple passages. (update, Greg Anderson just confirmed the entire set was based on “Wine & Fog”.) In the beginning, it felt like a warzone. The all-encompassing noise, mixed with the feeling of being in utter darkness, made me think of people who get caught on the streets after a large building falls. The droning sounds that came next were comparable to the ringing in the ears of survivors after such a tragedy. Logical and contemplative thought wasn’t possible because it took everything I had just to receive the sounds being thrown at me. Then Attila’s inhuman voice would pierce through the fumes and make me want to believe in something I didn’t even understand. I’ve been to a lot of black metal shows, but I have never experienced something as creepy and horrifying, yet somehow inviting, as the shit coming out of his mouth. At the end of the set, when his robe was shed in favor of a mirror-paneled insect suit with a spiked crown, he became the focal point for the first time. It was like the moment in a horror film when all the foreboding sense of malice explodes into a bloody finale.
Here is what Greg Anderson had to say about the live shows when I spoke with him in 2011…
“The live stuff is really important because it’s really a chance for people to actually physically experience what we are doing. [The thing about] the recordings [is that] we can’t control the way people are listening to them and what kind of sound system they’re listening to them on or what sort of environment they are listening to them in. I think a lot of the times people are listening to them on tiny earbuds or through computer speakers and unfortunately that doesn’t really reproduce the phonics of the recording properly. When it’s live, we have the control over how it’s going to sound and how it’s presented. The sound becomes very physical and you can feel it. It’s vibrating, you know?”
Sunn O))) put a lot of time and effort into their recordings, but there really is no substitute for the live experience. Like Greg said, it is something physical. It has to be felt. It is something you have to submerged yourself in for 90 minutes. And although the band did control the way people heard the show at the Gothic Theatre last night, everyone experienced it differently. Some people stood in one place the entire time. A lot of people had their eyes closed. There were those who were actually laying down in the back of the venue. I had to keep moving. I wanted to experience it from the front of the stage, as well as the balcony. I wanted to be on the left for a while, but then I wanted to be on the right. I’m not sure why if affected me that way. Maybe I just wasn’t strong enough to stand still and take it. Maybe I was looking for a connection that didn’t exist. Either way, it was an incredible experience. Maybe not exactly a pleasant one, but incredible just the same. As I walked out onto Broadway with shaky legs, wrestling to maintain my equilibrium, I realized I finally understood Sunn O))).
Wine & Fog (extended)