• Sunn O))) – Life Metal (Southern Lord Records) Album Review

    Released by: Southern Lord
    Released on: April 26th, 2019.
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    The first new Sunn O))) in four years is as crushing as you could hope it would be. At this point in time, Greg Anderson (on guitar, bass and drum) Stephen O'Malley (on guitar) know what they’re doing. This latest effort (their eighth album), which got a limited edition Record Store Day 2019 release on April 13th 2019 and, as of April 26th, the album is in wide release via, of course, Southern Lord Records. The album was recorded and mixed by none other than Steve Albini of Big Black and Shellac, and features additional work from Hildur Guðnadóttir (vocals and electric cello), Tim Midyett (bass), Tos Nieuwenhuizen (Moog synthesizer) and Anthony Pateras (pipe organ – yes… pipe organ).

    The album opens with the thirteen-minute Between Sleipnir’s Breaths, a calm and droning track with some strangely sweet vocals from Guðnadóttir overtop the layers of guitar and fuzz. By the standards of the band, this is a bit mellower than you’d probably expect, but the soothing (yes, soothing) sounds that comprise the recording have a dark, portentous vibe to them which gives the whole thing a strange air of menace. Given that the vocals discuss how short a time we have on this planet and questions how such a thing could ‘please the giver of life’, it makes sense that this would get dark. Still, there’s a beauty here that is impossible to ignore.

    Troubled Air, which clocks in at just under twelve-minutes, opens with yet another barrage of feedback and distortion, a massive weight of guitar-heavy intensity that roll over you like waves. And that’s more or less it, just wonderfully heavy waves of guitar-centric sound, no more and no less. It is, like many of Sunn O)))’s material, a complete instrumental track but it’s one of those that doesn’t need vocals, the guitar and occasional ‘tings’ from the infrequent but important percussion manage to create an intense mood, the kind that, in the right frame of mind, can either take you to a special place or turn you into a lizard by the time it’s all over with.

    The third track, Aurora, runs just over nineteen-minutes. That’s a long time, but it’s one of those tracks that just sort of melts over your head and seeps into your brain. It opens, quite slowly, with a mountain of slow, heavy riffs. Sabbathy style guitar work but played even slower and with less concern for rhythm. As the track progresses, the feedback and distortion frequently intensify, again, building mood and atmosphere and placing tone over everything else. There are noticeable shifts in that tone throughout the song but the bulk of it sticks to the ‘wave of sludge’ sound that the track starts with, really only deviating from it to pinch a little bit here and there, get your attention with some unexpected quirks.

    Life Metal closes with the twenty-five-minute epic that is Novae, a veritable sonic mountain of… I don’t even know. Describing sounds rather than songs can get tricky after a while, and this is one of those spots where, after writing about the first three songs, I run the risk of repeating myself. But this track is almost transformative in a sense, it starts off as background noise until you start paying attention to it, at which point it shifts to the forefront of your consciousness and demands your attention. Around the half way mark is gets calmer, a little less heavy and maybe a bit more erratic in pace, and it only gets weirder from there, taking on an almost chant-like tone around the fifteen-minute mark where the guitars pull back and something… chant-like, winds up in the front of the mix. This goes on for a bit until the guitars, maybe somewhat predictably, once again become the focus and throw layer upon layer of increasingly intense sounds into your ears, then ending the album as suddenly as it began.

    What’s interesting about this album, as opposed to earlier efforts from Sunn O))), is that there’s an unusual warmth to the music. Oh sure, it’s still heavy as heavy can be and absolutely bombards you with doom and drone and sludge, but underneath all of this is something beautiful and celebratory, something that surprisingly lifts you up and makes you feel good. This is interesting given that three of the four tracks have no lyrics, and stands as a testament to the power of the musicianship on display here.