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

Posted: 7 December 2021 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Southern Lord – 26th November 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Long after the heyday of the legendary Peel Sessions, BBC sessions remain something to be revered and something special. Even back in the 80s and 90s, when Joh Peel’s show was the place to gain exposure as an underground band, and a Peel session the pinnacle of prestige for any act outside the mainstream, the likes of David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Janice Long were also notable DJs who invited bands to record live / studio sessions, and while R1 has since become the domain if wall-to-wall major label slop without a single window for anything remotely alternative (that died with Zane Lowe’s departure in 2015, and while his sycophantic arselicking was nauseating, he did at least provide a platform in an otherwise mainstream space), 6Music, recently salvaged from decommission continues to uphold the tradition, thanks to Mark Riley (formerly of all-time Peel faves The Fall) and Mary Anne Hobbs. Hobbs(who quit R1 in 2010 to mentor students at The University of Sheffield and stepped into 6Music a couple of years later) in many ways represents the last bastion of the old-school, in a good way: the veteran DJ is more attuned to less obvious music than many DJs a fair bit younger, as her offering a slot to Sunn O))) indicates.

The beauty of BBC sessions is that they offer acts studio time to use as they please. Many crank out versions of tracks off their latest album, but others explore new territory, either with works in progress, random covers, or something else entirely. Sunn O))) elected to record a whole new album. And so it is that the follow up to Pyroclasts is an extension of the work from that previous album (plus one from its predecessor, Life Metal (2019)) – of which Pyroclasts was in turn an extension of sorts, having been recorded during the same sessions. They certainly know how to stretch a concept: the thing with Sunn O)) is that for all of their impenetrable wall of seriousness, which corresponds with their impenetrable wall of sound, there is a sense of wryness, a sense that they’re more than self-aware of their mythmaking and stylisation, and that delivering it all with not even straight faces, but faces obscured by cowls, isn’t entirely serous. By this, I mean high art and humour aren’t mutually exclusive. Sunn O))) make serious music in a serious fashion, and are even serious about it, but maintaining character throughout is integral tom the wheeze. And so in keeping with maintaining both the style and the form, they grind out longform pieces that drone interminably and gnaw away at the intestines in an uneasy tonal probing.

Having toured with the band as a support on the UK leg of their tour, Anna Von Hausswolf joined the band in the legendary Maida Vale studio and lent vocals, adding an ethereal quality to the low-end drone that continues for all eternity.

Immediately, we’re dragged into Sunn O)) time. Most radio sessions comprise three or four songs, with a duration of maybe fifteen minutes or so in total. Because most radio shows last maybe three hours, and a feature slot of fifteen to twenty minutes is proportionate. But with Sunn O))), most tracks are half a show in duration, and the first track on here, ‘Pyroclasts F’, an excerpt of which was revealed in November, is comparatively gentle, drifting semi-ambient work, combining heavy guitar drone and feedback, and of course it’s never-ending. Well, fifteen minutes in duration, to be more precise, as its counterpart Pyroclasts C#.

It’s not until ‘Troubled Air’ starts and that the truly intense, gut-shredding sensation hits. It’s five ambient minutes until the monstrous power chords strike the knell of dark doom, and we’re in classic Sunn O))) territory. Growling for an uncomfortable eleven minutes on Life Metal, this performance extends the piece for over half an hour, with downturned chords struck at An impossibly slow rate. The earth turns between chords, the sustain extending light years. The ominous organ notes trill and quaver like mist creeping in a horror movie, while the doomy chords torture the bowels and lower intestine and blossom into blooming cathedrals of chthonic darkness. It’s a sonic black hole from which there is no escape, and it grinds and billows and the listener is slowly sucked under by the relentless swirling currents.

Metta, Benevolence captures Sunn O))) at their minimal best, conjuring enormous, sweeping soundscapes of the densest, darkest, most relentlessly dark drone.

AA

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