Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Sep 30, 2009


2 days ago

Sunn O)))

Sunday, Sept. 27 @ Seney-Stovall Chapel

From the outside, the Seney-Stovall chapel looks like an elegant Chic-fil-a dwarf house, except 30 times the size. Inside, the chapel looks more like a Methodist church – cream walls, nice wooden seats, and a red velvet curtained stage that takes up a large portion of the floor. There’s also a balcony and a chandelier. This evening that stage was lined with a backdrop of human-sized amplifiers, which would soon emit colossal wattages of “Drone Metal/Doom.”

These labels, however, are a little too ambiguous – essentially what we’re talking about is heavy fields of sound – fields capable of rattling light fixtures loose from the ceiling, and vibrating floors, walls, and handrails. I even noticed my vision clipping occasionally, but I’ll get back to that.

Now, reimagine the chapel and add a small table to the center of the stage. This table has a small synthesizer and a small computer on it (my best assumption – there were black boxes there). Okay, fast forward through the opening band, who, to their credit, were at the right place at the right time (sorta kidding). They played hard, and as a two-piece (guitar, drums) “Doom” band, they made a good go of it. They are in another league entirely than the subject at hand though.

It’s now 9:45 p.m., and the chapel is densely filled with fog; the house lights have just gone off and two green spotlights at the front of the stage illuminate a periodically reappearing burst of cloudiness. Conversations with production crew reveal that the building’s smoke detectors have been tampered with in the hopes of preventing sonic and civil-servantly interference. A long time passes before anything other than the retarded mechanical hiss of the smoke machine and the occasional cough are heard, and unfortunately the first sounds heard are not of bass thunder, but laughter and jeers invoking drum solos and Skynrd songs – you know the stuff. More of this for a while, then, from the stage: “Sorry, we’re having technical difficulties.” Uggh. Then, maybe two fog clicks later, the spotlights melted red and a wave of sound got the building shaking.

The fog was so thick at this point that from the balcony I was only able to make out two figures on stage – one with a guitar, and one who appeared to simply be standing at the small table I mentioned earlier. Both were wearing hooded, full-length black cloaks.

For anywhere between the next, say, four and 15 minutes, modulating drones moved like fat ghosts through the building, manipulating not only the air and surrounding physical structures, but also the physiological vessel as a result. Somewhere during this time another black-robed creature (this one with additional red turban, erased face, and long blonde hair) emerged and took up residence in the intermittently emerging fog cloud. Time would reveal this to be a singer/narrator/screamer/arm-dancer/sorcerer/priest? Shortly, there was a distracting flash of bright white light. Then again. The sound was so encompassing at this time that it took a second to realize that the fire alarms were blinking. Then a little bit later, when the sound decrescendoed a bit, the alarms’ buzzing became audible. These alarms persisted for the next 40-45 minutes, until the very minute the show ended (perhaps because of the opening of the chapel’s two massive wooden doors).

Now the tricky part: The fire alarms made sense. I can see the argument otherwise, but I liked it, and feel that the overall presentation was only about three perecent hindered because of their existence, if at all. Only twice did I wish that they weren’t on, and on those occasions for maybe a second or two. I really had the sense that it all fit together appropriately, and from differing vantage points different alarm sounds were audible, which was a neat interactive experience. The alarms seemed simultaneously like an angry metronome and the building enjoying a prolonged and long-overdue orgasm.

So within the previously mentioned 45 minutes, Sunn O))) continued much as it began – crafting and eliciting heavy ass waves of sound with shifting modalities and rolling tubes of feedback; Different organs and architecture vibrating with different harmonizations during a general loosening of Time. It’s like medicine in the sense that the band presents many different arrangements/pairings of tone, and each designates a wholly differing atomic situation (this really is music theory/physics in practice, it seems). Each varying wave frequency has a unique effect on the surrounding energy landscapes, so follow this train of thought and you have a method. Sunn O))) guides its craft on a journey through these primal, subtle landscapes with enough wattage to reach even the most preoccupied person in the house.

So that’s what happened all set – variations on this theme through a “dark” (woodsy/pagan/celtic/spiritual?) approach, with no ostensible break in the whole set. The narrative was intriguing -- though I can’t say I have much background, basically what happened was that the red-turbaned creature went away around midpoint and a giant burlap sack creature smeared with blood replaced him in the spirit fog. This burlap sack creature had maybe two white faces (one of a wolf and one with vacant eyes?), an inverted christmas tree of black, orange-sized nodules sprouting from the “mouth” area, and several large sticks climbing from the top of the head. The sack/woods creature did more howling and throat singing than the turbaned one, who did more invocation/preaching/narrating, and it looked really weird, so I liked it.

This whole production was a loaded sensory experience, and in the end quite refreshing actually – I felt very light cycling home in the surprisingly cold night – though, in further retrospect, I would like to see that set without the contribution of unplanned fire alarms and their save-the-deaf-too flashing lights (which, to close the reference above, sort of behaved like strobe lights, and when i was looking at the geometric pattern on the navy blue carpet, changes in the room’s sound coupled with the strobe effect produced an ocular skipping where clumps of the carpet would sort of jump around – and I didn’t indulge in any recreational substances prior to or during the show).

To close, I’ll defend the idea that the band was able to incorporate the unexpected into the aesthetic, and perhaps themselves enjoyed the renegade dynamics at least a bit: It certainly sounded like there was an appropriate give and take, and most of the time the alarms were inaudible because the music was so dominating anyway. Seriously, no complaints about the alarms – it sounds worse in writing. This was a treat of mythic proportions.

*Tonight Sunn O))) will be performing a special, one-time-only set at Seney-Stovall that will not be seen anywhere else on their tour.

Tony Floyd