Cover art courtesy Southern Lord Records
- Frost (C) (10:56)
- Kingdoms (G) (11:04)
- AMPLIPHÆDIES (E) (11:03)
- Ascension (A) (10:54)
Recorded in the same sessions as April’s excellent Life Metal, the drone metal band’s new album is a rich, fundamentally life-affirming experience.
Stephen O’Malley once described Sunn O))) as his “guitar band,” which is a striking understatement. Over the band’s nearly two-decade run, they’ve never deviated from a singular mission: crushingly glacial guitars played at devastating volumes. Since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, the duo has gracefully slipped the shackles of heavy metal, remaining rooted in its ferocious aesthetic while pursuing high concept collaborations and drone at its most incantatory. Sunn 0))) is a guitar band like a hurricane is wind.
April’s Life Metal had a distinct back-to-basics quality, stepping away from the orchestrations and composer commissions for some of the pure, indefinite-hiatus riffage on which Sunn 0))) built their name. Recorded by Steve Albini, the album showed Greg Anderson and O’Malley summoning a sound of overwhelming scope and elegance, moving with just a little bit of extra authority.
Pyroclasts is a companion to that album, recorded in the same sessions but stripped even further back. At the start and end of each day of recording, the group and their collaborators would perform a simple exercise: explore a single modal drone for 12 minutes; Albini would capture it, and they would move on. These four selections can be experienced as a sort of frame for Life Metal’s more definitive statement. Not compositions, nor exactly improvisations, the group describes them as “a daily practice,” calling to mind a regular meditation or yoga routine (except at pain-threshold dB). And like a series of stretches, these sessions were intended to open up the musicians as they worked through the album.
None of that would matter if they didn’t open the listeners up, too. But, of course, they do. The experience on even the biggest headphones won’t ever be the same as Sunn 0))) in concert, but a full run through with Pyroclasts cranked all the way will leave few moods unaltered. Though visually steeped in the quasi-medieval occultisms of Scandinavia’s most notorious groups, listening to Sunn 0))) has always been a fundamentally life-affirming experience. Their tunings are too rich, their gestures too focused for nihilism. The titular inversion of Life Metal suggests a manifesto, and Pyroclasts could be Exhibit A in their argument.
There’s little use discussing the relative merits of one track over another. Though variations span the length of the album, the feel is so consistently immersive you lose track of yourself in the sound, which seems like the point. “Frost (C)” howls and shudders, its low end seeming to extend to the deepest, cruddiest bowels of the earth. Around the five-minute mark of “Ampliphædies (E),” someone takes what might loosely be called a solo. No surprise that it focuses mostly on one note; rather than articulating melodic flourishes, it feels like it’s clawing its way out of a mudslide of distortion, gasping for air before being subsumed into the mass. Finally “Ascension (A)” lunges with a triumphant drive worthy of its title.
“You’re inside of it,” O’Malley recently said of his sound in an interview. “That’s something that’s been part of my own development as a musician… evaporating.” Here one might think of buddhist monks in the Himalayas. The chant “om,” when pronounced correctly, is supposed to come from the throat, through the mouth and then the lips before returning to the silence from whence it came. This completeness is a sacred expression of the radiant, transcendent infinity of the universe. Pyroclasts feels about as close to that completeness as a metal album by a druid-robed group named after their amplifiers can get.