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Robe Trotters: Sunn0))) at Sonar, Sept. 23

September 25, 2009

| Image by Josh Sisk

Guitars are rock’s phallic object, but volume remains its big dick. Ever since the Who hit 126 dB in the late 1970s, the loudness = greatness paradigm is both a joke and operating cliché, as pushing decibel levels became metal’s concert Everest even though “softer” bands–see: My Blood Valentine, Survival Research Labs, Borbetomagus, etc.–routinely bled ears dry onstage. By the early 1990s it became such a dead horse that Seattle bands effortlessly made deadpan jokes about it: recall the Melvins’ louder than sondgarden T-shirt.

All of which makes Sunn0))), which iceberg-carved its way through Sonar the night before last, such a frigging trip. This drone/doom outfit formed by Stephen O’Malley and Southern Lord label honcho Greg Anderson in 1998 sounds like a joke on the page: named after an amplifier, they play live in monk’s robes before a wall of amps and create feedbacking immovable objects that proceed at the pace of anaconda digestion, completely sans anything resembling rhythmic meter. Oh, there’s a microscopic world of percussive elements that poke through the maelstrom, but they’re textures in the band’s slowly building tidal wave. And everything from the band’s verbal universe (song/album titles include ØØVoid and “Defeating: Earths’ Gravity”) to its visual language (think: desolate abstraction or Brueghel uncanny) reiterates the music’s idea of pushing metal’s dark subtext to an absurd extreme.

None of which explains why the band and its music is so seductive, or how the band so effectively transcended its Earth influences come the early 2000s, when a string of albums–2002′s Flight of the Behemoth, 2003′s White1, 2004′s White2–revealed a band as interested in avant-garde composition’s outré experiments with saturated ringing tones and the sort of esoteric collages of sound and information found in Nurse With Wound or Death in June. By this year’s Monoliths and Dimensions–with its Richard Serra cover art and a small army of collaborators–it became clear Sunn0))) was aiming for the forest that birthed the darkest, deepest metal, outer-head-space exploring free-jazz titans, and the likes of Ligeti, Wagner, and Pärt.

It’s still metal about metal, though, bringing death to false metal through deconstructionist meta. And for this tour’s live presentation of it, Sunn0))) goes full bore into performance art. Expectedly, Sonar’s tight club-room stage is bookcase-stacked with amps. Smoke machines drenched the room in a thick, humid curtain, lending this predominantly male-filled room a feeling of sordid exotica (while a handful of women were in attendance, this show was overwhelmingly attended by guys, and being in a room of men standing rapt before a stage did kinda make you feel like a volunteer in an Annabel Chong project). By the time the house speakers started playing the band’s entrance music, a mix of what sounds like chants and throat singing, you can’t tell if you’ve just walked into an Orthodox mass or hopped on the boat heading upriver in search of Kurtz.

Three robed figures slowly take the stage–O’Malley and Anderson on bass and guitar and Steve “Stebmo” Moore on electronics and trombone–and the first notes emanate from the speakers, though those words don’t come close to approximating the effect. At one moment you’re standing there listening to recorded music through the house speakers and the general hum of crowd chatter, the next minute a penetrating noise commands your senses and it feels like every hair on your body flagellates at attention while loose articles of clothing ripple as if a flag stirred by gale-force winds.

The guitarists strike various guitar-rock poses in extreme slow motion, a preposterous effect heightened by the still-dense fog and the fading-in-and-out red and gold lights, which made the stage feel like a primordial murk form which these robed figures occasionally broke free. And then tour vocalist Attila Csihar, the operatic Hungarian black-metal vocalist who worked with Norway’s infamous Mayhem, crept onto the stage, also in a robe getup. He proceeded to strike ritualistic poses, too, and the show warped into the batshit.

Full confession: I only presumed, but wasn’t certain, that Sunn0))) was performing tracks off Monoliths and Dimensions; only when Csihar hit the stage did I recognize parts of “Agartha.” Sunn0)))’s molten music becomes overbearingly uniform live for me, a pulsating GRRRRRRRRRRR that makes me feel like I’m undergoing an epic hernia exam, and their sets feel more like endurance pieces than sound maps that I recognize. And that’s fine–it’s the same situation as experimental improv. Csihar–and Moore, for that matter–introduced a modest degree of conventional structure to the live experience, even as Csihar’s theatrics pushed the show toward The Dark Crystal. He titled his head back and spread his arms ominously. He shrieked and throat-sang and offered incantations in a deliciously broken English. He left the stage and came back in a metallic costume that looked like a teenage mutant ninja turtle’s suit of armor, complete with a Statue of Liberty-spiky headgear and red laser shooting gloves, and continued his one-man vocal master class in being into some really creepy shit. Perhaps he knows Rosemary’s baby.

It was elaborate visual theater that could easily be mistaken for merely taking Stonehenge to 11, but nothing about the presentation feels, well, merely ironic or insincere. That’s not to imply that Sunn0))) doesn’t take the piss out of extreme metal–best merch: Monoliths tote bags, perfect for trips to the store or farmers market–but the band doesn’t resort to mere cheap jokes. It might resort to all the cheap jokes, but it presents them in the context of total commitment to the band’s idea.

Which is what prevents the highly mannered performance form turning into self-parody: It offers something to occupy the eyes since the sound occupies everything else. Sunn0))) live is above all a visceral immersion, and Monoliths introduces more spaces for shocks to the system. The volume is so invasive that you don’t realize how incarcerated you’ve been until the guitars drop out, leaving only Csihar and Moore, and the sudden splash of negative space feels like being allowed to come up for air after being held underwater. Csihar’s piercing screams–many piercing screams–makes you aware that Anderson and O’Malley stick to their instruments’ low- and mid-ranges, infrequently hitting those annoying upper frequencies that make your ears sphincter clinch. And when the band finally worked to its rumbling finale–after more false codas than Return of the King–it generated the sort of floor-shaking power that compensated for those moments during the show when time felt to stop, and the tide threatened to take you way out.