Stephen O’Malley

New York Times vs SUNN O)))

Posted: Sep 24, 2009

New York Times vs SUNN O)))

September 24, 2009
Music Review | Sunn O)))
Two Bands, a Million Decibels

The music of Sunn O))), despite the band’s typographical karate, despite its ability to seduce a large crowd into attending late-night shows of megaloud compositions with static guitar tones and Hungarian battle cries, despite its wall of mystery, is not higher math. It’s pre-math. It’s sniffing the air to get a weather forecast, watching the moon and tide to track your birthday. It’s banging rocks together and chanting, but with an expert knowledge of high volume. It is rare to see an important band alongside one that directly inspired it, but this was what happened on Tuesday at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn, at an experimental metal show presented by the Blackened Music Series, with Sunn O))), pronounced sun, and Earth, pronounced earth. Two other bands were on the bill — the instrumental quartet Pelican and the duo Eagle Twin — but the real story was the final pairing, two groups with roots in Seattle who enoble the drone.

Earth, the older of the two, has refined itself over almost 20 years. Formed by Dylan Carlson, still its leader, it once favored aggression and chord changes that felt like rock, even at a ritual crawl and without singing. But recently its music sounds more like a film background, with a scent of Miles Davis’s “In a Silent Way.” On Tuesday Mr. Carlson played a Fender Stratocaster with a clean tone; Adrienne Davies played drums, applying each slow beat carefully; Don McGreevy’s bass notes, reverberating in the hall, massaged the soles of your feet; and Steve Moore warmed up the chords with electric piano. Earth doesn’t really do peaks and valleys; it makes its case without a fuss and leaves you wanting more.

By contrast Sunn O)))’s kind of mystery, practiced since the late 1990s, can be suffocating. It started its show, as usual, with a 20-minute censing of dry ice and the recorded chants of Gyuto monks. Then the band started its march of long, long notes, played by guitar and bass and a little bit of keyboard. The members played through the pieces in unison, without a drummer, so slowly and loudly that small discrepancies of timing produced dissonances that worked like sonar drills on your guts.

With two musicians at its core — Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson — the band has rotating others in studio and onstage; its current tour includes Mr. Moore, of Earth, on keyboards and trombone, and the Hungarian singer Attila Csihar, once of the black-metal band Mayhem. To a crowd twice the size of any it has had in New York (sold out, at 1,100), Sunn O))) performed three-quarters of its new album, “Monoliths & Dimensions” (Southern Lord). The music was mostly unbroken, with some improvisations along the way, and finally too much of Mr. Csihar’s singing, mostly in Hungarian.

It’s music that creates an environment, and makes you want to walk around in it. Having tested different pockets of sound around the hall, I left the building, to hear how the loudest band I’ve ever heard sounded out on Lafayette Avenue. I’m glad I did: this music needs open air. I listened to Mr. Moore’s trombone solo, long tones over guitar harmonics, through a side-door. But then the door closed and the music downshifted back into the ritual low notes. A security guard said something great as I re-entered, and suddenly I felt I was in another show: Mr. Csihar’s.

First he wore a sort of Statue of Liberty crown, then a costume made of burlap and tree branches; he gestured slowly as he sang, and every time the music came to a perfect ending, he restarted it with a horror-house scream and more chanting.

What the security guard had said was: “That’s how rock started, man. Brommmm.”
photo: Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times