September 30, 2020

Sunn O)))'s twin album releases, Life Metal and Pyroclasts (2019), are a fantastic entry point into drone metal - Album reviews

Two releases that have escaped me over the past year were from drone metal gods, Sunn O))) (pronounced just Sun, and aptly named after the popular Sunn amplifiers which ceased operation in 2002), with their half-improvised, half-composed twin albums, Life Metal, and Pyroclasts. For any newcomers to this genre of mammoth sounds and drastically slowed reverberations, these two (relatively) new releases cement this duo's legacy as drone metal pioneers and an awesome entry point for anyone interested in pulling back the veil of the eternal void.

Life Metal 

Sunn O))) Life Metal Album Artwork

Recorded alongside Pyroclasts and released six months earlier, Life Metal is a play on words and an inside joke between band members and collaborators, since they refer to life metal as the opposite of the genre term, death metal, and therefore anything that isn't "doom and gloom". For context, Sunn O))) duo Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have found themselves in a good place at this time in their lives over their 20+ year career, with one recently becoming a father. Thus, Life Metal is the sum of this personal contentment and Anderson's creative challenge to compose a drone album that is less dark in tone.

Consisting of only four tracks each, Sunn O)))'s wall of sound is devastating in its tonal envelope and metal riffs. By trading off between drone and riff-maker, Anderson and O'Malley, with the help of some frequent collaborates and the recording assistance of legendary producer Steve Albini, created two masterworks, and the first Sunn O))) albums that are recorded and mixed entirely in analog equipment. This ultimately recreates the exact tonal experience of seeing the group in a live performance setting.

Starting off with Between Sleipnir's Breaths, which is a Norse mythology reference to the eight-legged horse that the god Odin rides on, it is bookended by samples of Sleipnir whinnying and galloping through the cosmos. What's also noticeable as the album begins is Sunn O)))'s distinctly powerful and nimble riffage, which comes across swifter and less glacial in its pace when compared to previous releases. Between... is assisted by the otherworldly and ancient vocals of Icelandic singer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who also happens to be a classically trained cellist who contributes to this record. It is the only singing on the album. When the blustering eeriness subsides, Troubled Air takes over and is highlighted by Australian composer Anthony Pateras's pipe organ. Aurora is a meditation in feedback that pushes listeners to the edge of eternity before letting off the pressure and beginning again. Finally, Novæ, the longest song by far, clocking in at a behemoth quarter-hour, is the piece that briskly moves through heavy sustained riffs before descending into its guttural and subdued midsection. It's primal and deep in its chasms of meditation, but it inevitably builds into a walloping windstorm of power, climaxing, and piercing in its final 3 minutes of droning metal. 

Pyroclasts

Sunn O))) Pyroclasts Album Artwork

By definition, Pyroclasts refers to the catapulted pyroclastic volcanic rocks during a volcanic eruption. It is curious that Sunn O))) decided to name these four improvisational tracks after something so explosive. While their sound remains rock steady, its sustained tones generate almost like a falling avalanche or erupting volcano. Frost (C) is the first cut that was produced by the band, and these four 11 minute tracks were improvised drone jams, more or less, at the beginning or end of the day while recording for Life Metal. Frost (C) can only be described as unforgiving, as its drone, feedback, and dark and heavy riffs, feel exactly like a hurricane blizzard. The second track, Kingdoms (G), starts off a bit quieter (if you can even call it that), and it continues the tradition in an aurally satisfying way. It crescendos by the halfway mark and gestates and vibrates there for a while before distorting itself the rest of the way to the end. Ampliphædies (E), which sounds like the ancient god of amplifiers, quivers, and strums, with energy that always feels like it tops the previous entry. Just how can a rock group keep sounding louder? However improbable it may seem, Sunn O))) does just that. The riffs and almost angelic-like chorus playing out in the corners of the chaos of tonal assault, create an atmosphere unlike any other. Last is Ascension (A), and it turns on as if right at that exact moment, the band just picks up and goes for it. It's a purely transportive drone that wraps up the 44-minute release. 

Sunn O))) have defined a genre, and haven't let up after all these years. What they have composed in these two sprawling releases is a catharsis of heady and meditative metal drones and riffs that can be played at any volume, but will always produce in listeners the same effect of a massive, yet ethereal calm. For those who are ready and willing to experience drone metal, Life Metal is the definitive entry point into this genre. 

Life Metal - 8.25/10

Pyroclasts - 8/10

Recommended Tracks: Between Sleipnir's Breaths, Troubled Air, Frost (C)