One of the most memorable e-mails I’ve ever received arrived one morning this past April from Andrew Male, my colleague at Mojo magazine in England. It read: “Sunn0))) at the Camden Underworld played inside me, slowly shifting all the internal organs around (no light show, just burning candles on stage) until alighting on my nostrils. Loudest thing ever, louder than Swans in ’85.”
Although he is British and works in the music press, Sir Andrew is not a hypester. At his advanced age, he sits in that place where experience becomes wisdom rather than cynicism. So, my ears prick up when he talks like this.
Then again, everyone seems to talks like this about Sunn0))), from the metal connoisseurs to the noiseheads and drone fetishists. Way back in 2001, Julian Cope began to champion their work on his influential “Album of the Month” Web page, declaring that “Sunn0))) is the heavy rock equivalent of an institutional-size dose of Largactyl, that is: When you finally get down, you stay down . . . an essential buy for anyone who hankers after an amphibian inner-life.” When Sunn0))) opened for Aphex Twin at this year’s U.K. All Tomorrow’s Parties, revered avant-music Britrag The Wire said, “Their neolithic doom drone has the rare gift of being both transporting and preposterous. Dressed in druidic robes and illuminated by flickering candles, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson carve great slow motion arcs with their guitars, and an anonymous vocalist in Nordic metal facepaint kneels down, shoves two mics into his mouth and lets out a giant reverberating ‘om.’”
This week, Sunn0))) plays Los Angeles for the fourth time. The first time was at the Garage in 1998, when, Anderson chuckles, “There was one or two people there, and I knew who they were.” Yet each Sunn0))) audience member seems to become an acolyte. Cope’s raves from a distant island instigated an ongoing mutual admiration, with O’Malley and Anderson asking Cope to lend vocals to a finished Sunn0))) track. The result is the extraordinary “My Wall,” a 25-minute End Times–style ode to the megalithic landscapes and mystical personages of Cope’s country village surroundings: Godspeed You Shamanic Metaller. The track is featured on Sunn0)))’s new White1 album (released by Anderson’s L.A.-based doom-metal microniche label Southern Lord).
“The whole thing about playing Sunn0))) is making really awesome sounds, to stop thinking so much,” says O’Malley. “To just let yourself go into this other space. Sunn0))) live is an attempt to change time and space for 30 minutes. It’s a very strong tool because it’s actually dealing with waveform, which is how thought works as well, on a certain level. Sunno))) is pure physical sound. Air pressure. Being in a space in front of speakers can really be a meditational space, not only mentally but physically. It’s a mixture of the pure physical sound and also locking onto these rhythms that don’t even get perceived as rhythms by people but which actually are. We’re making a really slow puzzle.”
White1 features guest artists including Runhild Gammelsaeter, former bandmate of O’Malley and Anderson in the legendary but little-heard Thorr’s Hammer. She sings a traditional Norse vocal that leads off “The Gates of Ballard,” a 17-minute sludge riff tacked with the flattest-then-flangiest drumming possible. Like the rest of White1, this music was co-written with Joe Preston, current Thronesman and ex of the Melvins and Earth, the extremely slow early-’90s Seattle band that is the acknowledged inspiration for Sunn0))).
“I got to see Earth once,” says Anderson. “They played this small club, it was just fucking amazing. There were maybe 15 people there. Those first two recordings they made are like the blueprint for Sunn0))), that droning music, just your body being enveloped by sound waves, especially low-end ones. It can be really massaging, actually, especially if you’re leaning against the cabinets. Your reality changes.
“After a set, I am just so relaxed. And for the audience, it’s like a three-part experience. You see the band, you hear the band, and you feel the band, too.”
Sunn0))) plays at Spaceland on Wednesday, September 3.