SUNN O))) vs NYer
Posted: Sep 29, 2009
Set List: Sunn O))) at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, Fort Greene, Brooklyn, September 22, 2009
Hey, Bono, you’re doing it wrong.
On the season premiere of that show everybody watches on Hulu, U2 played an extra, V.I.P.-style song under the credits, replacing the traditional closing where the cast stands around awkwardly waving. (This may have allowed host Megan Fox to escape before anyone touched her or tried to give her a rose.) In addition to a pair of off-kilter performances of songs from “No Line On The Horizon”—a big, blowsy album that doesn’t translate to the stage as well as the band’s leaner work—U2 performed “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” from “Achtung Baby.” To make the performance more magical, Bono swung around on a fluorescent microphonic ring that hung from the ceiling, and then sang into it, because it was a microphone. His jacket was covered in dozens of miniature red lasers that shot into the crowd and distracted them from trying to remember what album “Ultraviolet” is from. (Apparently, the crowd got a performance of “With or Without You” after the broadcast ended, because U2 hates people who watch TV.)
Bono is not Attila Csihar. That guy shooting laser beams out of his hands is Attila Csihar. You are not as metal as he is, and neither is Bono, even if Csihar is both Hungarian and vegetarian.
Csihar sings with Sunn O))) and the legendary Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. Long before Csihar joined Mayhem, the band’s second vocalist, Dead, committed suicide, and their guitarist, Euronymous, was murdered by his bandmate Count Grisnackh, in 1993. Csihar probably doesn’t have to worry about being killed by anyone in Sunn O))). The core members of the band, Americans Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, are largely peaceful, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any violence in their music.
Sunn O)))’s performance last week at Brooklyn’s Masonic Temple may be the loudest show I’ve ever seen. I saw a Ramones show in the late eighties that might have come close, though that music mostly took place in an upper midrange that Sunn O))) doesn’t visit much. The median sound for Sunn O))) is a low chord, pitched below standard tuning, that blows through the crowd like a humid wind and stays in your body like that liquid they make you drink before you go through the CAT-scan machine. Standing in front of the stage on Tuesday night felt like a teen-age dare. How long could I stand to have my organs palpated? How could I tear myself away? Would the volume loosen up kinked muscles? Sterilize me? The intense physicality of Sunn O)))’s music makes it seem like any number of things might be happening to you and only a forensic reconstruction will reveal exactly what did happen.
Over the course of twelve years, Sunn O))) have devised something that operates to the side of, or behind, music: their sound eats up space and time. After the show was over, my head felt like a bag of blueberry muffins that had been left under a bench for three days. I walked down Vanderbilt Avenue towards my house, sweaty and bereft of the ability to echolocate.
Low-budget theater is part of the current Sunn O))) show. The opening? A recording of monk chants playing while chemical smoke filled up the room for twenty minutes. When nothing on stage was visible except a microphone stand and the top of an enormous speaker assembly, the band entered. (The smoke machines continued, intermittently, all night.) Anderson, O’Malley and additional musician Steve Moore (a trained jazz pianist who has “never heard Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’ ”) began to play, all in monks robes. After we had adjusted to the deep tissue massage of their sound, Csihar entered in robes to perform “Agartha,” the first song on the latest Sunn O))) album, “Monoliths & Dimensions.” In heavily accented English, Csihar recited a set of lyrics about “the riddle of clouds,” stones, sky, and Eskimos. Eskimos!
Csihar left and then returned in a robe covered with reflective shards and a headband ringed by reflective spikes. Csihar pointed the laser-fingers at his own outfit and then the crowd, getting more mileage out of the get-up than you would expect. (From my vantage point, the lasers looked like everyday office pointers sewed into black gloves, four on each hand.) His final outfit, an “earth mask” designed by Egyptian artist Nader Sadek made Csihar look like the victim of violence and some light gardening.
Each “song” (a paltry term here) lasted at least twenty minutes. Reaching 2 A.M. with Sunn O))) was not a lark. Yet I would have gone back the next night, had it been possible. The immersion Sunn O))) offers is like nothing else. (A series of photographs by Andrew Parks of Self-Titled magazine will help explain exactly what the assault looked like.)
A few days later, I emailed O’Malley, and this is what he wrote back:
"Being in that space definitely put a frame around the music and our presence within and beside it. The mystery was amplified and there is certainly something both forbidden and off access to modern though in a place like that. We discussed the importance of temple to freeze time, or to rather to bypass it. The masons lay metaphysical cornerstones in physical locations."
O’Malley also revealed that the band doesn’t rehearse much, partially because he lives in France and Anderson lives in Los Angeles.
"It’s a free music, but the structures are written to a point. Since the geography doesn’t permit rehearsal, it doesn’t happen unless there’s an event like a tour. Mostly the sounds develop themselves along the arc of continuity."
(Fauxlaroid by Nikola Tamindzic, other photographs by Aeric Meredith-Goujon.)