Album Review: Sunn O))) – Metta, Benevolence. BBC 6Music : Live on the invitation of Mary Anne Hobbs

Album Review: Sunn O))) – Metta, Benevolence. BBC 6Music : Live on the invitation of Mary Anne Hobbs
Reviewed by Dan Barners

At the conclusion of their October 2019 UK tour Sunn were invited into the John Peel studios to record a special live set for Halloween broadcast on BBC6. This three-track album is the result of that session and further expands on the performances by the band on that tour.

I caught the band’s tour at the Albert Hall in Manchester on a Sunday evening in late October – ‘twas the night after watching The Macc Lads at the Ritz, so was something of a musically diverse weekend for me – and their set was a hypnotic and transcendental experience that you can only manage when you’re standing in a crowd of people, being hit by wave after wave of noise from a stage awash with dry ice and smoke and, while no live recording could ever match the experience of being there in person, when it comes to Sunn, the rules are slightly different.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Sunn’s music is not for everyone (when first listening to Life Metal, Mrs B asked if it was the sound of someone Hoovering?) The compositions are long and experimental, they are devoid of hooks and any form of melody, using frequency as the driving motivation, and are, frankly, difficult to find an ‘in’. This is enough to dissuade many a casual listener and therein lies the rub.

For Sunn is not a band that can be listened to casually and it’s unlikely that you’d pop on Black One or Flight of the Behemoth as background music. Instead, they are a band whose music demands your full and absolute attention and for the listener to engage with the sound in a way they would not ordinarily do with other music. The ideal listening situation for Sunn – and other Drone bands too – would be a sensory immersion tank fitted with speakers through which the compositions could be played.

Album Review: Sunn O))) – Metta, Benevolence. BBC 6Music : Live on the invitation of Mary Anne Hobbs

This set is made up of three tracks from the two albums released in 2019: Life Metal and the overspill and - in my humble opinion – superior Pyroclasts; however, the two compositions named after that record, Pyroclasts F and Pyroclasts C# don’t appear on the album after which they are named and are variations and developments on the themes of that record.

Both F and C# clock in a around fifteen minutes and demonstrate the variation within Sunn’s sound. Both are intense drones, featuring mesmerising and hypnotic slabs of weighty guitar, juxtaposed with light and airy moments. Sunn have this ability, throughout their work and ably displayed here, to contrast the inhumanly heavy with the unbearably delicate; the guttural with the ethereal; the cerebral with the visceral.

Crushing guitars, so heavy as to attract objects through sheer gravitational attraction, give space for additional instrumentation: the sound of keys can be heard, alongside otherworldly voices, provided by 2019 tour support, Anna von Hausswolff, creating the widescreen vista of a musically alien soundscape. Whereas F lays down the foundation, C# seems to head off in a more haunting direction. This isn’t to say C# is somehow more mellow than its predecessor, rather it builds its drones on a softer base.

It is only the third and final track, Troubled Air, that has been previously available on record and although the twelve-minute version heard on Life Metal and the thirty-minute-plus version here open with the same massive chord, this new interpretation heads off into otherwise unexplored regions. In many ways it is akin to jazz experimentation, with messers O’Malley and Anderson leading the rest of the musicians on a journey of discovery and revelation.

As the heavy guitars drone away, the keyboard draws lines and sketches of devotional resonance. Sunn even employ a Moog synthesizer to underscore the rising to exalted heights throughout; and

throw in a trombone for good measure. This iteration of Troubled Air is a feast for the ears and, even though the original recorded version was a satisfying meal, here Sunn have pulled out all the stops and served up a sumptuous banquet of sound.

The sound of the drones is deliciously clear, with every vibration of every string being presented to perfection. The incidentals in the form of further instrumentation lying deeper in the mix are as crisp as intended and as the tracks swell the production never once betrays the creators’ original intention.

If you’re new to Sunn or are just curious as to what the band are about, then Metta Benevolence is a fine place to start. F and C# are great taster sessions to acclimatize yourself, before attempting to summit Trouble Air. But when you do, when you stand atop that peak and look down, know that your musical palette will have been forever altered.

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