Very few bands are responsible for creating and/or popularizing an entire genre, but Seattle’s Sunn O))) is one of them. Formed over 20 years ago, guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley utilize a simple formula that they have stuck with since the beginning – strum a heavily distorted chord and hold it into a drone. Throw in some feedback, occasional speed picking, and alternate tunings. Build these elements into long-form tracks. Ignore melodies. That’s about it. There is a Zen to Sunn O))) and you either achieve it or you don’t.
While easy to describe in the abstract, the Sunn O))) approach is anything but monotonous. Instead, Anderson and O’Malley create menacing soundscapes, dense with oppressive atmospherics and slabs of dissonance. Life Metal, the duo’s eighth studio album takes things to another level with subtle assistance from a few collaborators, skillful production qualities, and a somewhat brighter tone.
Consisting of four pieces across its 70 minutes, the album begins with Between Sleipnir’s Breaths, featuring Hildur Guðnadóttir on spoken and chanted vocals. Guðnadóttir also contributes electric cello which blends into the guitar drones. This is followed by Troubled Air, in which Anthony Pateras provides subtle pipe organ themes that anchor the noise walls and feedback. Aurora involves cleaner and faster (yet still ponderous) riffing, while Novae rounds things out with more cello from Guðnadóttir interspersed over its 25 minutes. Various tracks also benefit from contributions from T.O.S. Nieuwenhuizen on Moog and Tim Midyett on bass guitar.
Despite Sunn O)))’s reputation, Life Metal is not 100% in-your-face music. There is a certain thoughtfulness and restraint to the album especially as it nears its end. But if intensity is what you are looking for, there is no shortage of that as well. All of this sums up to an effort that is strange, but also strangely appealing. Not a bad place to start if you have been looking for an excuse to enter the realm of Sunn O))).
A thoroughly enjoyable release.