by carl wilson

A Little Vomiting Music, Maestro

Sunn0))).jpg
Photo by Declan O'Neill. © www.declanoneill.com.

It feels, with one thing and another, like months since I've done any actual, you know, music writing. What better way to reimmerse than with a full-body dip into the blackened tar of the genre known as doom metal? I've got a feature today in The Globe limning out some thoughts on Sunn0))), the Kasimir Malevich of metal bands, who play the Music Gallery on Monday. (Read it here.) Also in today's Globe, I take the wheel of the Essential Tracks column, with squibs on songs by Michigan's NOMO (post-techno-post-Fela-post-Ra-free-funkestra), London's smartie-teen Internerd springtime lollipop Lily Allen (next big thing or next Amy Winehouse?), the single from the new Wiley album (you can still hear it over at DJ/rupture's place) and a blues standard by Irma Thomas (from her post-Katrina album After the Rain).

This is not just music to vomit by

BY CARL WILSON
The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 19, 2006

Rock has died and been revived so many times now that no one should be surprised if some part of it behaves like a true zombie, dragging its ravaged limbs along under compulsion from some cruel and absent puppet master.

Like garage, post-punk and a dozen other rock offshoots, heavy-metal music is back in the near-mainstream, returned from its much-mocked big-haired 1980s phase to its earlier roots as the home of rock's most earnest self-taught intellectuals, with the bad-boy appeal of Satanism serving as cover while you read a lot of books about conspiracy theories and the supernatural.

The rigid genre distinctions that sustained metal fandom through the lean years seem to be breaking down amid its new popularity, as the genre absorbs adherents of goth and puppy-eyed "emo" punk. But along with such commercial successes as bands like My Chemical Romance, or the Ozzfest and Sounds of the Underground tours, the genre is also developing its own art-minded counterculture, with groups that take metal's concept-album tradition to new heights, or may draw heavily on the 1990s Japanese noise-rock underground. And these groups are attracting an audience of listeners who may not normally consider themselves metal fans.

At the forefront is the guitar duo Sunn0))), who perform Monday. (The name is pronounced just like "Sun." The 0))) isn't a word but a pictograph, showing the heavenly body radiating three waves of light.) It's led by guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, who also founded the new art-metal label Southern Lord Records, with a changing cast of collaborators.

Sunn0))) certainly doesn't eschew the grand guignol of metal's past. They perform theatrically cowled in druidic robes, they are prone to song titles such as Flight of the Behemoth or Bathory Erzebet - and on that latter song on their latest album, the vocals were recorded with the singer confined in a coffin locked in the back of a hearse.

But this band is to most metal bands what colour-field artists are to painting - just look at their last three album titles, White1, White2 and Black One, for a hint. Like Russian painter Kasimir Malevich's 1915 painting of a black square, Sunn0)))'s music distills something essential from the form but takes it to such an extreme that it becomes almost another medium.

Specifically, Sunn0))) is about guitar frequencies. There's little concern for song form or rhythm and certainly (and this it has in common with such long-standing subgenres as death or thrash metal) not melody. There are no drums. Vocals make only rare appearances. Rather, Sunn0))) produces long, slow, deafeningly loud drones that sound a little like a Black Sabbath album skipping so that just one chord plays over and over again. It's what you get when faith in the unifying rebel myth of rock has collapsed, and the anatomists come to pick over its corpse.

Yet if you open your ears, the music is not tedious. O'Malley and Anderson have a beguiling command of timbre and texture, keeping the crackle and buzz of their sound mobile even as the harmonics barely budge. They seem constantly to be urging the groaning, slow-grinding music forward, and the effect can be trance-like, particularly at the extraordinary volumes the band favours in live shows.

Indeed, Sunn0)))'s main preoccupation is not so much with music as with the physiological ramifications of noise - they're turning metal from music to take drugs by, into sound that acts as a drug in itself. They linger particularly around what are called "sub-bass" frequencies, a range that has long been studied by military strategists and scientists as ripe for weaponization. Fans like to boast that they've gone to a Sunn0))) concert and nearly lost control of their bodily functions: The band has even complained that they're tired of fans vomiting at their shows, as if it's become drearily de rigueur.

But closer to its core, Sunn0))) is not a juvenile gross-out game - their vibrations can bang your head into the kind of meditative state that monks spend years trying to master. As Malevich wrote in 1920, "perhaps the black square is the image of God as the essence of his perfection" - or what's really going on between the devil's horns.

Sunn0))) is at the Music Gallery at St George-the-Martyr Anglican Church, 197 John St., on Monday. Sold out.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, May 19 at 10:33 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)

 

COMMENTS

Yeah, I realize that. It's just that using "Suprematism" just wouldn't have helped make the point at all. I tried to keep colour-field and Malevich somewhat separate - I didn't say he was one, I just said that Sunn is like colour-field painting and that Sunn is like Malevich - but obviously that does serve to confuse the two somewhat. But given space restrictions, etc., it was the best available shorthand.

Posted by zoilus on May 20, 2006 2:54 PM

 

 

Nice to see Malevich name-checked in The Globe, but I think that calling him a "colour-field artist" is a bit of a misnomer -- sort of like calling Laurence Sterne a post-modernist. Although I admit the Globe's readership might not be interested in the finer points of how Malevich's Suprematism differs from Constructivism, Rayonism, Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, etc.

Posted by Paul M on May 20, 2006 11:35 AM

 

 

That said, nothing would make me happier than to get a "melodic thrash mix" from you, Sean.

Posted by zoilus on May 19, 2006 12:29 PM

 

 

Hold on hold on hold on. I never said there wasn't *rhythm* in death metal and thrash. I said there wasn't much concern for *melody*. Read the sentence again - the syntax is a little overloaded maybe but I didn't bring up thrash and death till I was getting to melody. You could dispute that - and maybe I haven't heard more melodic stuff in those genres - but I suspect that to do so you'd have to broaden your definition of melody from a more standard one. I was thinking about vocal melody, as most people do, but you're right that there are melodies in the bass and guitar riffs in both genres - I was thinking of that more under the category of "song form." Maybe that was too imprecise of me.

Posted by zoilus on May 19, 2006 12:28 PM

 

 

I really like the article on SUNN 0))), Carl. It's not too often that a funeral doom band gets coverage of that magnitude and as a fan of both the band and the genre in general I am delighted to see it.

Having said that, I think I'd have to disagree about a lack of melody and rhythm in both thrash and death metal. I think in both subgenres there is definitely room for both and, especially in thrash, there is a lot of rhythm necessary if a band is going to pull off what they intend to do. I could go on into detail about that, but this probably isn't the place to do it. Maybe I should just make you a mixtape instead...

Posted by sean palmerston on May 19, 2006 11:11 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson