BEING THERE: Sunn O))) @ Underground Arts

Sunn_O))_by_ERIC_ASHLEIGH copy


The dark lords of the drone metal Sith, Sunn O))) consists of guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, a pair of spooky black druid robes, and lots and lots of smoke. Trafficking in tectonically slow strumming and seismic sludge tones, Sunn O))) create one of the most unique musical spectacles of our time. They’ve collaborated with other spectacles over the years, such as Boris, Ulver, Nurse With Wound, and even Mayhem’s Atilla, and have just released their latest album, Life Metal, for Record Store Day, recorded by legendary recording engineer Steve Albini. Their next album, Pyroclasts, is set to drop this fall. Last night, I witnessed them perform a unique “Shoshin” performance at Underground Arts, a back-to-the-roots, guitar-only set with no guest members, the only show of its kind this tour. I even survived the gauntlet to tell the tale.

Opening act Papa M (Dave Pajo of Slint fame) soothed the crowd with a welcomed juxtaposition to what would come next. Pajo sat alone in a chair illuminated by the naked lightbulb of an unshaded lamp which sat atop his guitar combo amp. Manipulating the effects on his pedalboard and layering ambient guitar loops on top of ambient guitar loops, Pajo lost himself in a long, ever-morphing jam comprised of emotional movements, as his silhouette in the lamplight swayed to the unfolding rhythms he weaved. He concluded with a heartful fingerpicking number that stirred up feelings of half-damaged triumph after great, sorrowful struggle. Upon finishing his twentysomething-minute set, Papa M silently exited the stage with a smile and bows of gratitude.

Then we waited.

The fog machines let out a startling hiss, and the room was very quickly filled with vapor, at which point everyone around me disappeared. I couldn’t even see my friend standing next to me, but I could tell he was there by the dank aroma he exhaled; safely blanketed out of sight from the security guards, he and many other THC-chiefing Sunnites wasted no time adding to the haze. Two black-robed figures emerged, enshrouded in the thick, pink and orange fog. Six Sunn Model T amplifiers (from which the band derive their name), four Ampeg SVT amplifiers, and the wallest wall of speaker cabinets I’ve ever seen – yes, bigger than Kevin Shields’. Every strum felt like my skull was cracking open and demons were flying out, rendering my brain a loose yolk spilling down my face. It was the auditory equivalent of staring into the sun: a sonic sensory overload. For the feedback finale, O’Malley and Anderson set their guitars on top of their amps, causing the strings to continue vibrating as the blinding roar became too loud to hear. A thousand pounds of sound crushing me into the ground and straight to hell – my soul was cleansed. This is exactly what I’d signed up for.

Sunn O))) is often hailed as the loudest band on Earth. I’m always interested in claims like this, and for the sake of interest, I’d like to toss in my own two cents on the matter. Swans is also often hailed as the loudest band on Earth, and after my first time seeing them, I was convinced I’d never witness anything louder; I don’t think I really wanted to either – for both my loyalty to Swans, and for my fear of hearing loss. But, as someone who has now experienced both bands live, front and center (ears plugged), I will attest that Sunn O))) seemed to have reached louder volumes than any of the three Swans shows I’ve been to. Maybe my hearing is more sensitive these days (yeahhh…sure), maybe my hi-fi earplugs this time around let in more low-frequency than the foam ones I used at the Swans shows, maybe I’m just rationalizing. One thing’s for sure: my ears are fucked! One friend of mine left the show early and said that he could feel Callowhill St. rumbling beneath his feet as he walked to his car. — KYLE WEINSTEIN

RELATED: More Sunn O))) @ Underground Arts Pix