To quote the great David St. Hubbins, “it’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever.” It’s also, in American culture, a fine line between the established and the avant-garde. The paragon of this are Sun Ra’s singles, which combine a sincere, straight-faced take on pop music with the deep, but lightly held, eccentricities and naive weirdness of Sunny at his best. And how else to describe Sunn O))), makers of music that is simultaneously heavy metal – mainstream – and deeply experimental, who headed the bill of the Blackened Music Series at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple Tuesday night.
At the end of a long evening, Sunn O))) was alternately amazing and tiresome, with the amazement ultimately winning the balance and producing a rare experience. Part of the amazement is that Sunn O))) is actually doing what they do – they are essentially some of the foremost avant-garde musicians currently in America. They get there by being truly experimental, trying things and judging the results then exploring what they like. Where institutionalized avant-garde too often means drawing a limited and artificial boundary line and then ‘transgressing’ it with self-conscious dramatization, this intuitive and fruitful method requires patience, work and dedication to hone the ear and taste; it requires craft and artistry.
How they do it is clear, as their prepared material is formed through dedicated improvisation, but how they get away with it in front of an audience is a bit of a mystery, and fascinating. By this I mean how they gather a relatively mainstream audience, not the tiny segment of the population that seeks out and listens to avant-garde music in a more self-conscious and self-isolating way. The band is in the tradition of anti-Establishment American culture, where people go their own way and come up with their own, often extremely odd, autodidactic solutions. They are, thankfully, ignorant of or uninterested in the limited and circumscribed possibilities offered by the overly-professionalized conventional wisdom found in politics, business and the institutionalized arts. What university or granting organization would even imagine that music could be made that had no melody, harmony, tempo, beat, rhythm or even pulse? That is Sunn O))) at their best, which is at their most extreme, making music with pure sound.
They are not, however, always at their best. I would say that their not-best work is what helps them gain a relatively large audience (an enormous one vis-a-vis the avant-garde in music); you can listen to tracks that have a drum beat, that have a bit of a riff, and certainly that have lyrical content. The band, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, make use of the heavy metal performance cliches of hooded robes and smoke machines, all elements common enough to give a listener some familiar place to start. But while these elements are familiar, the application can be unique. They are ritualistic in fundamental and simple ways – at the Temple, they filled the entire auditorium with smoke and then waited an extra, wearying, twenty minutes, playing the multi-phonic chanting of monks over the PA before taking the stage. Once they did, however, they produced their massive slabs of sound completely shrouded in obscurity for most of the performance. This was amazing. The smoke had the effect of eliminating any distractions from pure listening, and with Sunn O))) one listens with the body. My iPhone decibel meter was pinned at 110, the level of a chain saw at close quarters, and the actual volume was appreciably higher (a momentary ear plug gap during Eagle Twin’s opening set revealed that they were casually exceeding the pain threshold 125 dbB).
It was a long set, divided roughly into two unequal parts. The first and longest part was exemplary; deeply pitched, enormous and enormously long chords and tones coming at intervals which, compared to common metal music, could be charted only on a geologic time scale. The sound, through amplification, has astonishing physical presence and fullness without being thick, it’s actual quite transparent and full of pleasantly gritty, crackling details. When it is complex enough to define a chord, it is mainly minor key and never dissonant, although Anderson and O’Malley push the sounds against each other and bend the tunings enough so that the gradual speeding and slowing of wave interference beats spin around the space. Sunn O))) understands how fascinating and beautiful the qualities of sound can be and they have the craft to convey that to the audience, placing musical events with confidence and care through passing time. Their ability to listen and wait patiently for the next musical moment is uncommon. The long, slow first part was so powerful and transformative, with a built-in natural ending, that it would have been completely satisfying all by itself. The second part was solid but inevitably less majestic and surprising and the slightly faster musical activity was unable to carry the same amount of sonic and expressive weight.
And there was heavy-duty expression happening. With each attack, the sound was immediately there, filling the entire auditorium and filling the body as well, and this is the key. As an email from the organizer warned “you will feel this show with you entire body. Please fortify yourselves accordingly.” Sound is a physical phenomenon, waves that reach out and touch the listener, connection the source and object across distance. Sunn O))) literally touches the audience, this is a goal, and they touch with profound power in that what they play doesn’t only reach the skin and the ear, it enters the body and vibrates it from the inside out. When they hit certain frequencies this vibration can produce a reactive sound that is heard from inside the body – there were moments when a distinct, buzzing hum was clearly audible to my inner ear and clearly coming from inside my body, with a quality not far from the sensation of chanting “om” during yoga practice. This was like magic in the sense of the primitive mind experiencing awe. Certainly, one must be sympathetic to the actual sounds Sunn O))) produces, and that response is going to be positive or negative in a fundamentally intuitive way, but for the sympathetic listener the experience of the band at their best, i.e. their most extreme, is like encountering two gods placing mountains on the earth, shaping the land across horizons we cannot perceive. After all, before the first light there was first the sound.
The group was joined on stage by singer Atilla Csihar, with mixed results. With him they were both at their best and at their most ordinary, which is not their strength. Csihar is an astonishing singer and a charismatic performer, appearing first in a scalloped, metallic robe with laser pointers on his fingers, and then in a primitive costume of burlap and wood, he seemed to be a visitor from an alien planet and then a creature from mythology. He has tremendous command of multi-phonic singing and produced impossibly long, sustained tones that were as mesmerizing as the two guitars. He also sang lyrics, some in English and some in Hungarian, and this dispelled the magic. When Sunn O))) is free from the common and confining elements of beats and words, they are marvelous. When they use these elements they are only a little interesting; they circumscribed by a genre they inherently surpass. The lyrics, a rambling mishmash of vaguely pagan incantation seem meant to be unsettling in a standard way, vis-a-vis contemporary Western religion and society, and they are unsettling but in that sense that one is unsettled by an adolescent boy’s misanthropic, anti-social proselytizing and looks forward to the day when he grows out of it. This is an aspect of normal metal music, infantilism, that is a feature, not a bug, and sorely limits its possibilities.
The other aspect is the beat, and Sunn O))) performed without percussion which, considering their basic heaviness, has the paradoxical effect of maintaining a certain lightness in their sound. The other bands, Eagle Twin, Pelican and Earth, all had drummers, and this put a limit on their own qualities. Metal drumming is the weakest musical part of the genre, a stiff, un-syncopated bashing which adds weight and force but also tends to hold the music making in place in the vertical sense, when it could be flowing along. John Bonham wasn’t the greatest drummer, but he could still convey a sense of rhythm and funkiness in a heavy music, and it’s odd that there is so little of his legacy extant. Eagle Twin’s Gentry Densley is a powerful, fluid guitarist, able to solo forcefully while accompanying himself and they are at their best when he’s ripping through the music, but the singing and drum bashing are again ordinary. Pelican and Earth are purely instrumental. The former is a powerhouse group, playing songs that combine familiar seeming riffs with interesting orchestrations and excellent ensemble playing, their set offered the suggestion that they could be truly astonishing if they could only free their beat a little. Earth is a veteran band playing a spellbinding, lyrical and truly minimal metal; sparse, slow, graceful lines placed amidst a great deal of silence. Again, their beat is stolid rather than propulsive, but they have the unique ability to create the sensation that time is standing still, followed by the feeling that only a few minutes have flown by once their set ends. They left the crowd wanting much more, and set the stage for Sunn O))).