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Album Review: SUNN O))) – Life Metal

Let’s go back in time for a moment. It’s Friday night, April 12th. The alarm clock is set for 7:00 am. I’ve got my Dearborn Music shirt and jeans laid out and ready for the morning. My tiny coffee maker is prepped with five cups of hazelnut goodness ready to percolate. And even though it’s a Friday night, I’m going to bed early. Because tomorrow is Record Store Day 2019, and I’m a man on a mission.  That day may have been just another Saturday to most people, but to me, it was SUNNday.

SUNN O))) (pronounced as “sun,” but “sunno” for fun) is a prolific drone metal band comprised of two core members, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. The duo have been playing their infamously loud and uncompromising style of metal since the 1990s, pushing the boundaries of ambient, noise, and experimental music with every new album. Full disclosure: I’m a huge SUNN O))) fan. I celebrate their catalog as arguably the best in drone metal, and though I don’t necessarily love every album, EP, or demo, SUNN always tries to do something new and exciting, and I like that. For Record Store Day 2019, SUNN O))) decided to release Life Metal two weeks early on vinyl, limited to only 4000 copies; knowing the history of this new album, I made sure that I was going to get one of those damn copies. First of all, Life Metal was recorded by the one and only Steve Albini at Electrical Audio, where analog dreams come true. Second, some inside-baseball for indie rock nerds: Tim Midyett of Silkworm and Bottomless Pit plays bass on this album. I like limited vinyl. I like Silkworm. I like Steve Albini. And it’s no surprise that I like Life Metal.

This 68 minute LP kicks things off with “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths,” and the track is bookended by what sounds like the whinnies of the Norse octoped itself. But to get to the end of this opening ditty, you have to weather a cyclonic salvo of colorful drones. “Sleipnir” is classic megadroning SUNN with a spritz of the familiar occultist flavor that made Monoliths & Dimensions so spooky. The same brutally slow guitar chords that started inching forward years ago on The Grimm Robe Demos are still playing on Life Metal, reinforcing the band’s reputation as a legendary acquired taste. Though on this new effort, SUNN’s noisy oeuvre is enriched by Albini’s analog process, and a simple comparison of Life Metal against their last LP Kannon reveals a night-and-day change for the better. Seriously, give it a try: Kannon sounds like it’s performed somewhere off in the distance, whereas Life Metal swells in the space between your ears, voluminous and warm like embers of cedar. The second half of “Sleipnir” introduces the only vocal performance on the entire album, a beautiful recitation of Mesoamerican poetry by frequent O))) collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her voice is a delicate counterbalance to the calamitous mix of feedback and distortion, meekly piping in and out as if to avoid being shattered to pieces by an errant guitar chord. The poetry, attributed to warrior/philosopher Nezahualcoyotl and Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, reveals a defiant humanism that complements the organic pulse that throbs throughout Life Metal, providing a sensory experience unlike any metal album released so far this year.

This might sound crazy to a casual listener, but for a band with the infamous motto of “Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results,” SUNN shines because of their subtlety. Sure, it’s impossible to ignore the in-your-face drones or the door-busting “BWAHHH” of the guitar chord that kicks off “Troubled Air,” but the nuanced details throughout Life Metal add cohesion to the overarching concept. Lingering harmonics and triangle tings puncture the thick aural miasma like headlights fighting through fog, and momentary shrieks of feedback spurt out as if someone had their thumb pressed against a garden hose. Even transitional moments between guitar blasts demand your attention: on “Troubled Air,” chords snap into place like breakers on a sonorous circuit board, brimming with electric torque and changing position with meaty “CA-CHUNK”s.

While SUNN excels at playing loud, bone-melting drone, O’Malley and Anderson cordon off specific segments of Life Metal as moments of quiet respite because after all, they do self-identify as “power ambient” music. I’m impressed by SUNN’s ability to curate dynamic sounds out of their diverse instrumental arsenal. The compositions of Life Metal are as complex as they are subtle, and multiple playthroughs are recommended. The first half of Life Metal concludes on some extremely soft staccato pipe organ, a normally proud instrument that sounds uncharacteristically humbled by Anthony Pateras’ patient playing. By reading the album credits, I learned that Greg Anderson actually plays a bass drum throughout Life Metal, and you can hear it softly thudding as Sleipnir the equine octopus huffs and puffs at the end of the first track. By this point, it’s clear that I’ve enjoyed Life Metal a whole bunch, but it was during a playthrough of the album’s second half when the SUNN’s gravity really pulled me in.

The evocative nature of the music allows my imagination to run wild and explore the little details in the esoteric soundscape. There’s a roaring cluster pivot on “Aurora” that sounds like someone pulled the ripcord on a motor submerged in water, as if the band’s undulating Orange amps were fueled by straight, unleaded gasoline. Life Metal’s final test is the lurching “Novae,” where fragile sheaves of mood gently cling to the cacophony like applying an aloe salve to a bolt of lightning, and I was brought to literal tears by how stunning chaos can sound when played in thunderous tandem. Then suddenly, the volume drops below the usual threshold to explore what I interpret as “ur,” a minimalist expression of ancient tones. Guðnadóttir’s electric cello and some sparse feedback waft in the smoky ambient atmosphere, calmly resonating like the primitive purr of the reptilian brain. The antediluvian slumber is broken up by a brief reprisal of drone metal, and then it’s over before you know it.

I know I said earlier that I like this album, but after thirty or so listens, I think I love Life Metal. Of course, as a SUNN O))) fanboy, I figured that I was going to enjoy the new LP, but I’m blown away by how consistently well-executed everything sounds. Albini’s production is perfect to my ears, and all the elements coalesce into exactly what I’ve come to expect from SUNN O))): an engrossing drone metal opus that sets an incredibly high standard for everyone else. And if you happened to also enjoy Life Metal, then good news: they’re releasing a follow-up album later this year. I gotta say, I think O’Malley and Anderson have outdone themselves with this one. Well DUNN, guys.

Life Metal was officially released on April 26th, 2019.

You can purchase Life Metal at SUNN O)))’s Bandcamp page here.

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