Friday, 23 January 2009

Sunn O))): The Grimmrobe Demos

First track, ‘Black Wedding’ opens with a fade into just noise – just noise in that it is impossible to tell what (if any) instrument is being used, perhaps leading one to bring in the useful umbrella term ‘electronics’ – but this almost immediately turns out to be just the afterglow of feedback, and thus it can be classified as ‘instrumental’, to some extent, though one might perhaps say that guitar feedback is an ‘electronic device’ as addendum to, or extension of, an instrument. At any rate, this blurring is, I think, typical of Sunn’s desire to go beyond the guitar through the (electric) guitar’s guitarness – that volume, that amped feedback which we so associate with the guitar now, is taken to its (logical?) extreme, where it just becomes noise beyond any instrument (so that, at some shows, they use just Moogs).

‘Grimmrobe’ is an album which seems as though it never ends, as if it’s music that actually continues playing beyond the arbitrary division of how much sonic material one can fit on one compact disc. Not only this problem of turning Sunn’s work into ‘album’/commodities, which always risk losing something of the totality of their experience, but, moving down a level, the division into separate tracks seems somewhat arbitrary. (The second track, ‘Defying Earth’s Gravity’ begins in almost exactly the same way as ‘Black Wedding’, with five seconds of noise/sound before a guitar chord comes in to tell you this is indeed a guitar). Such tactics would change in later releases like ‘Black One’, where the bell-punctuated quietude that opens ‘Báthory Erzsébet’ is very much a ‘prelude’ to the rest of the track, just as the tracks of ‘Domkirke’ very much have the feel of moving towards a climax. Such a move to climax obviously differs from ‘Grimmrobe’, where there is a feel of constantly sustained climax, or climax beyond climax, so that this sustaining becomes ridiculous and then feeds back to make the whole notion of the sustained rock-music climax (itself derived from, say, the closing cadenza-flurries of a Coltrane piece from the 60s) seem simply inadequate – as if Sunn have released the hidden noisy energies of Deep Purple, who really want to be Sunn. This is some sort of structural underpinning, but of such a stretched kind that it seems inadequate to talk of ‘song structure’ (of ‘song’ at all, even when vocalists are present, as they are not on ‘Grimmbrobe’). By contrast Boris, Sunn’s closest sonic kin, work very much in building up to and away from peaks and troughs – take the Merzbow collaboration ‘Sun Baked Snow Cave’, where acoustic guitar (!) melodicism morphs into noise-clouds.

Despite all this, the second track on ‘Grimmrobe’, ‘Defying Earth’s Gravity’ has that crushing inevitability about it which most of Sunn’s music (at least, in its ‘signature sound’ guise), also has. Because the power-metal chords are sustained for so long, you know what will be happening in the next few minutes at least (and can count on a similar chord coming up as the riff drags itself along, a wounded giant’s sub-bass groans) – but, again, this is taken so far so far that the inevitably becomes strain rather than comfort (or, maybe, at the same time, a kind of comfort as well?). You can’t say, as you can when listening to, say, a Baroque violin or lute sonata, ‘I know the sort of formulation that is coming up now’, although Sunn’s sounds are actually even more obvious than Baroque formulations.

Maybe the reason for this is that the music numbs you so that you hear what is not actually there – that is the music in it. Mathis Svalina, reporting on a gig at the Knitting Factory: “But the up-to-11-ness of the noise is only part of the experience. Each monolithic riff chased itself into fleetingly exuberant harmonics. The sounds were inside the noise.” The drone becomes like your heartbeat, or your blood as a drone or pulse – which connects to John Cage, entering the soundproof room and discovering that true silence doesn’t really exist – that there is still sound even in this locked environment, the sound of your blood, normally drowned out in the everyday world conditions where you can hear everything else going on around you, environmentally. Devoid of such sonic context, in this soundless environment, your body provides its own environmental sounds.

A similar effect can be perceived with Sunn, though they go about it by very different methods – extreme noise rather than extreme quiet. Their drone becomes bodily, becomes part of your body, or you go bodiless and become part of it (getting swallowed up into something outside/inside of yourself – it’s all hinged on contradiction; or, it transcends the false dichotomies of music/noise/sound/ person/other, raises a possibility of that transcending. And what is important is the noise/sound that would seem ‘peripheral’ to that drone, to the particular chord that is being played – specifically, on some tracks, there are phaser effects (‘Black Wedding’ here, or ‘bassAliens’ on ‘White 2’) – but if you have music at that volume and in that ritual atmosphere of their concert performance, with the dry ice and lighting, you start to hear things not there. Would it, then, be going too far to say that you yourself become the producer of the music, not just the passive consumer of it? In itself, this could be construed as an anti-capitalist notion – or maybe as simply beyond capitalism, ignoring it all together.

From the liner notes and album art, there are hints that this alternative worldview goes back to an older, pagan, pre-Christian mode of perception, which in many ways is a more brutal and nihilistic one. Sunn’s attitude to these aspects is unclear – and these sort of images, this sort of text, was always something that worried people so much about Black Metal. Dangers (as well as liberating possibilities) always arise from such ambivalence. And the refusal of any one emotional realm, like the refusal of any one particular ideology, simultaneously avoids and perpetuates such dangers. Greg Anderson: “There’s not one idea we’re trying to focus on, but we are more about the aesthetic and the atmosphere than say any particular religion or idea. If anything, we just want a ritual around sound and tone, rather than any particular ideology.” For myself, I’d say that the loudness of the drone pulverizes the listener, but not to conformity – this is not the same as the US army’s use of noise as torture, though it intriguingly crosses over with it; rather, it is the opposite. ‘Black Wedding’ even feels joyful, despite the track title and the album title. But that’s no simple joy – rather, it’s a joy of despair, nihilism turned up so high that it becomes the only thing to be joyed in. Revelling in the darkness – “the blissful loathing of you is now all that remains” (from the text accompanying ‘Black One’). A kind of comfort in utmost bleakness.

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