I’m going to try something new with today’s review of SUNN O)))’s new album. For those in the know, SUNN O))), Seattle’s masters of drone metal and power ambient, have been rather prolific as of late. Six months prior in April, the group released Life Metal, their eighth and, in my opinion, greatest album to date. I put together a Rank and File retrospective of the band’s impressive catalog, which only made me appreciate the new album more; however, the band wasn’t exactly tight-lipped about their plans to drop a follow-up album to Life Metal later in 2019. The awesomely-named Pyroclasts, described as a sort of fraternal twin to Life Metal, retains the same crew that crafted the latter album. And while SUNN O))) imports familiar elements of drone metal that made April’s offering so special, there’s distinct differences between the two 2019 projects that allow each piece to stand on its own.
I referenced trying something new with this review in the lead sentence. Instead of describing Pyroclasts in general as a whole, I’m going to discuss each of the four tracks one by one and how they fit in with the larger theme. I’m kind of transposing from my notes here, in which I tried to capture my immediate and colorful impressions as they happened. Remember: with SUNN O))), it’s not just about what you hear, but also about what you think and feel. So, break out your imaginations and buckle your nuts down, and let the Pyroclasts flow.
“Frost (C)”: From the jump, “Frost” feels like a continuation of Life Metal’s prevailing themes, albeit somewhat more atmospheric. The vastness of SUNN O)))’s aural landscape seems endless, a testament to the excellent analog recording at Electrical Audio by Steve Albini. With audio fidelity this good, it’s easy to immerse oneself in the music and let the imagination wander. The duo’s guitars imitate lungs, inhaling and exhaling with deafening breaths over the omni-cacophony. I was playing this track on my balcony during a windstorm, and the interaction with nature really enhanced the listening experience. The expansive drones sound like the rumbling yawn of a cosmic accordion, with psychedelic cicadas whining in unison as galactic-sized gold bars spar like tectonic plates and melt into one another. The black night sky unfolded like a tulip, revealing bold goldenrod underneath, stretching, and shaping like blazing taffy. And I swear throughout this song there are tiny little melodies and faint bass hidden in the swirling amp fog. “Frost” is a total sensory experience and an elite drone song.
“Kingdoms (G)”: It starts off reminiscent of a classic O))) track “A Shaving of the Horn that Speared You,” an immersive little ditty that I appreciate. Like the previous song, “Kingdoms” eases the listener in with bass-heavy drone, a familiar rumbling like an old lawnmower engine in slow motion. A sly bassline sneaks in between walls of oppressive noise, and then, some interesting guitar twangs echo here and there and get comfortable in the chaos. A few minutes into the song, I’ve got a crackling amp fire in my left channel, and Swans-like discordant guitar in the right; however, straying from the rising post-rock heights of Mr. Gira’s amorphous outfit, SUNN maintains a low, steady, heavy drone profile throughout the second track. An incoming barrage of exploding electronic-sounding noise, and sometimes, there’s an onomatopoeia-machine in the far background subtly going, “wahwahwahwahwah.” It grows more prominent as the song evolves, with additional guitar-based passages and explorative influences. “Kingdoms” reminds me of an Earth song played at a SUNN O))) pace, which is cool and in part due to Albini’s excellent recording work. I can hear every instrument, even Midyett’s bass, and that’s great.
“Ampliphædies (E) ”: …is fun to say. “Amp-luh-fay-DEEZ”1. Some clamorous atmosphere up top, like if God spilled a bag of marbles onto the Milky Way. Clang and twang on the high notes of the guitar, or at least higher notes than SUNN usually plays. I’m getting more of that mid-to-current Earth influence, sometime around The Bees Made Honey in the Lions Skull, not so much the newer, questionable stuff off Full Upon Her Burning Lips. The vibrant bass guitar persistently hums and strums untouched by the kinetic fray, defiant and making small indents in the foggy aural sphere. Tim Midyett is back on the thudstaff, and when I’m listening, I like to think that it’s a Silkworm bass line in a SUNN song, which makes me happy. Halfway through “Ampliphædies,” SUNN peppers in these warm and tingly drone notes that feel really nice on the ears, and careful listeners will pick up on these satisfying brain-tickling vibrations on other tracks as well. The penultimate song carries on at a technically higher tempo than Life Metal’s glacial cadence, but for some reason, “Ampliphædies ” has a greater meditative effect than O)))’s drones from earlier in the year; alternatively, if you’ll pardon the PUNN, the songs on Life Metal felt larger than life itself, whereas Pyroclasts’ drones, which are by no means peaked, feel almost more personal and grounded than adventurous. There’s an Eastern Indian rhythm to this track, and it’s fun to pick out the hidden variety of influences in the daunting tempest. A period of downtime is broken up by intermittent chords banging around and making noise. But it’s never harsh noise, and it’s certainly not Merzbow. At the root of Pyroclasts (and its sister album Life Metal) is a foundation of chaos, but on this project, in particular, SUNN manages to mold the disarray into something worth meditating on.
“Ascension (A)”: Oh god, that opening “WHIIIIIING” note feels like someone yanked a zipper up my face. Even when I know it’s coming, it still gets me. But “Ascension” promptly straightens out and starts the reflection session over again with faint sirens, shuddering drones, and primal euphoria. Six minutes in, there’s a guitar screech that makes my body seize up like a dead bug. Unflattering, I suppose, but it’s a testament to SUNN’s visceral interactivity: if music makes you feel something, it’s done its job. I saw a butterfly struggling in the cool breeze as I was listening to this song sputter, and it felt…profound? I guess my dead bug posture was just waiting to become a simile in real life. Unlike “Novae”, the closing track on Life Metal, “Ascension” doesn’t feature any genre-busting interludes or a lengthy runtime; but, it ties up Pyroclasts’ through-thread of meditation nicely with dense atmosphere building and, of course, bone-curdling drones.
A planet-shearing adventure with emphasis on self-reflection, Pyroclasts is SUNN capturing a second bottle of lightning. Somehow, someway, after creating what I consider to be an essentially perfect album in Life Metal, this cherished collective of artists takes us on a brand new expedition above even harrier peaks, while maintaining its focus on ancient intelligence and primal love. This is a no-brainer for fans of drone metal, and I could see funeral doom and avant-garde scenes finding a lot to like about this fantastic album. I will say, on the whole, I do prefer Life Metal to than Pyroclasts: the earlier album is a complete masterpiece, and Pyroclasts feels less so, but as far as companion albums are concerned, these two works go better together than pepperoni and gumballs.
Actually, what if we did blend these two great tastes together into one colossal mixtape? What would we call it? My vote is for PYROMETAL.
Pyroclasts was released on October 25th, 2019.
You can pick up Pyroclasts here or wherever flat, black platters are sold.