Your Noise Is My Symphony: Review of Sunn O))) with Eagle Twin at The House Café
By Tyler Estabrook, Staff Writer
When Sunn O))) comes to town, you can expect anything but the average heavy metal concert.
The night of Friday, July 10, I experienced one of the most captivating and physically demanding shows I have seen, at one of my favorite venues, The House Café in DeKalb, Ill., 263 E. Lincoln Hwy. What I like most about this venue is the intimate atmosphere that allows more direct interaction with the artists, and also the fact it tends to attract a decent amount of nationally-touring independent bands.
This particular concert, Sunn O))) with Eagle Twin, was a night of mind-bending experimental and atmospheric metal that, paradoxically, while stretching the sonic and conceptual limits of the genre, also brings it full circle, back to the roots, the lowest common denominator: the sheer weightiness of the distorted power chord, which has influenced generations of musicians from Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath onward.
Sunn O))), named for the revered brand of amplifiers and pronounced simply “sun,” is a band at the forefront of the so-called drone genre, which takes the ordinarily slow-and-lumbering Sabbath-obsessed subgenre of doom metal and pushes it to its slowest, densest, most-down-tuned and usually percussionless extremes, creating what is essentially ambient music built around heavy guitars instead of warm, pulsating synths. The core duo of the group is Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, although the two have worked with many collaborators, especially in recent years.
The band has steadily evolved since its first release, 1999’s Grimm Robe Demos, from highly minimalistic guitar drones (heavily indebted to drone pioneers Earth), composed of only a few chords and several layers of feedback, to something much artier and more diverse, having more in common with Arnold Schoenberg, Miles Davis or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music than Black Sabbath or Saint Vitus. The band’s recently-released seventh studio album, Monoliths & Dimensions, even features contributions from musicians who have played with the likes of jazz legends like Sun Ra and John Coltrane. Monoliths & Dimensions is some of the band’s best work yet, alongside the 2006 collaboration with Japanese noise/drone veterans Boris, Altar, and the 2008 live double LP Domkirke, recorded in Bergen Cathedral of Norway, complete with pipe organ and medieval chants.
Sunn O))) also self-releases its music on its own Southern Lord label, a bastion of forward-thinking heavy music, to which the band’s opener, Eagle Twin is signed. The guitarist and vocalist of the relatively new duo Eagle Twin, Gentry Densley, is best known for his work in the highly influential 1990s jazz/prog/metal band Iceburn.
Studio music and live music have their own sets of virtues. Studio albums have virtually no limits and may be the end result of several months’ experimentation, but live music done right is a transcendent experience that goes beyond the album to create a palpable wall of sound that envelops the audience. As the saying goes, “maximum volume yields maximum results.”
Eagle Twin’s set was a thunderous, eardrum-busting session of supremely sludgy “doom blues roots rock,” in the words of the band itself. Densley’s baritone guitar work and burly vocals and Tyler Smith’s lurching drum work were the archetype of heavy and groovy, making Eagle Twin’s performance one of the most compelling and headbang-worthy I have seen at The House Café to date. Sonically speaking, Eagle Twin has a lot in common with the down-tuned, syrupy thick tones of late 1980s/early 1990s sludgy icons like Sleep (which spawned High On Fire and OM) and Kyuss (which spawned Queens of the Stone Age and Fu Manchu), but in terms of songwriting the band has more in common with the deconstructionist and trance-inducing approach of labelmates OM (which is, incidentally, two-thirds of Sleep, with a new vision). This is the warm, fuzzy groove of 1970s metal minus all the cheesy bits, i.e., the goofy costumes, the rock star excess, the stage theatrics and the unnecessary musical showmanship, with a slightly more modern level of seriousness. Eagle Twin’s live sound is fantastic to boot: loud, raw and beefy.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see Greg Anderson and trombonist Steve Moore work their way to the stage for the last song of the set, lifted from one of 2008’s best albums, Ample Fire Within, of collaborative one-off side project Ascend, which played an eclectic and moving mixture of jazz and droney, heavy rock. To be able to see any of Ascend’s songs live was a privilege, and the particular song they played turned into a spine-tingling, 15-minute-plus improvisational piece, which was not only a highlight of the show, but a rather unexpected one.
Finally, it was Sunn O)))’s turn to take the stage. On this tour, Anderson and O’Malley were joined by the eccentric and highly versatile Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar, whose modern-day version of Vedic throat singing or Gregorian chant, whatever you want to call it, adds an archaic yet timeless element to already ritualistic music.
The band built suspense for nearly 20 minutes: dimming the lights, cranking up a fog machine until you could barely see the person in front of you, while Attila chanted solemnly alone on stage, his deep voice reverberating through the floorboards. This segued into eerie Arnold Schoenberg-esque orchestral music (probably lifted from Monoliths & Dimensions) that played until, at last, O’Malley and Anderson strode toward the stage in their Druidic robes, faces obscured, picked up their guitar and bass, and set the bowel-loosening sub-bass into motion that would give the audience a non-stop full-body massage for nearly two hours.
This is the kind of music you can feel in your bones. I’ve seen some loud bands in my day (in fact, two of the loudest I have ever seen were at this same venue: avant-noise band Daughters and epic Japanese instrumentalists Mono), but Sunn O))) is by far the most bottom heavy, heavy enough to make your ribcage vibrate. In some ways, this kind of concert is a tectonic, slow-motion assault on the senses, but it also is a kind of soothing ritualistic sensory overload that induces a relaxed, almost meditative state. Drone albums make great background noise, but this kind of music must be experienced live to be fully understood.
Sunn O)))’s set consisted of one, sprawling improvisational piece only loosely based on the group’s newest album, with no breaks in between movements. I heard both elements of the symphonic drone approach of Monoliths & Dimensions and the medieval-influenced Domkirke LP. But songs that are more subtle on the records become much more simplistic and focused live, because the bottom end is so much more present and real.
The music slowly oscillated between loud and not-so-loud, sometimes the chants (in an unrecognizable language) taking charge while backed up by shimmering feedback, sometimes the guitars laying down wave after wave of crushing sonic doom that enveloped everything, making it almost hard to believe the sound system and old building could even handle it. At the piece’s climax, the chants, the guitars and the aforementioned string samples worked together to create an unplaceable and impossibly dense pinnacle of atmospheric music, music without limits. Sometimes the guitars would pile octave upon octave of warm, unending consonance; other times, the audience would be pummeled with undulating seesawing waves of dissonance.
Through the course of the nearly two-hour set, the fog slowly lifted to reveal the cloaked figures standing before walls of vintage amplifiers, lifting their instruments toward the heavens in the ambient blue and green glow of the venue’s stage lights. As the music ebbed and flowed one last time, the musicians built up one last assault, letting their guitars ring out while turning knobs, with feedback and sub-bass reaching almost unbearable levels, then dropping their instruments and stepping forward with arms outstretched, seeming to revel in the magnitude of the sonic monolith they had created. Then, suddenly, the music was over, and the audience’s ears began to ring, probably not to subside for the rest of the night.
The combination of two of the heaviest bands in the world and a small, intimate venue made for a worthwhile and overwhelming experience. As a fan of experimental music, even I was caught off guard by how much physical and mental fortitude it took to survive the headliner’s entire set. I wouldn’t recommend going to this kind of concert without a good pair of earplugs and comfortable shoes: having to stand in such an inhospitable environment for, all told, four hours, even if you can handle the noise levels, is still physically exhausting for anyone. Your whole body will feel like jelly afterward, but your legs, and of course, ears, will have taken the most abuse.
Sunn O))) may be a bit too noisy for some ambient fans, a bit too drawn out for some metal fans and a bit too weird for the general population, but this isn’t music for people who don’t like to be taken out of their comfort zone. Artists this prolific don’t come through DeKalb too often, so to me, the show was well worth the $20 price tag (most of The House Café’s shows are around $12, if the artist is nationally touring, and usually less than $10 for local bands). And to me, this is the concert that proves the undeniable power and palpable force of amplified sound waves. You don’t know heavy until you’ve seen something like this. Most metal concerts I’ve seen pale in comparison. I just wish I could have seen the reactions of passers-by hearing such a racket coming from such a small establishment in unassuming downtown DeKalb.
For more about The House Café, including a calendar of upcoming performers, visit its Web site at www.thehousecafe.net.
from the July 22-28, 2009, issue
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