All photos: Greg Szeto
MP3: Sunn O))) – Big Church from Monoliths and Dimensions (2009)
I’m just going to lay it out there. Sunn O))) blew my mind and disappointed me at the same time.
Sunn O))) are a spectacle and an experience. Their particularly glacial blend of drone, doom metal and many other things dark and heavy demands, and depends, on such deep immersion for its effect. This is why, no matter how enormous the sound or foggy the room, their set at Sonar couldn’t even touch the experience of reading about their set at First Unitarian in Philadelphia. From all reports, had I been there it would have instantly ranked in my all time concerts list. The crowd’s refusal to take part in the immersive experience early on rendered the introductory hypnotic monk chants largely ineffectual, and even a bit farcical as grumbles about the New Age-y trance track mounted. Despite this initial falter, they still put on a mammoth show.
After a lot of fogging, Sunn mobilized in monk robes to take the stage and drown us all in over an hour of the deepest, darkest, sludgiest doom drones outside of whatever hell dimension true metal comes from. Apropos their latest album title, Monoliths and Dimensions, their deliberately paced, deafening assault was truly monolithic. Their sound was, in fact, even more massive than I had expected. At times, I felt my ear drums were going to implode from the pressure of the sound waves, and my heart most certainly skipped beats to match the rumble of the low octave chords that made up their endlessly mutating drone. Never throughout the set did they let up on the intensity or artifice of their roles. They produced probably the closest thing to a demonic ceremony that I will ever witness, through ritualistic and crushing worship of music (even playing their instruments with no small amount of melodramatic flare ie- bass impalement, guitar offerings to the sky). One kid in the front row even took to periodic bowing and praising Sunn, only reinforcing the strength of their musical liturgy.
What proved most fascinating about their music though, was the absolute insanity of their vocalist, aptly named Attila. Stunning vocal acrobatics, dipping into octaves that may very well reside in the underworld, were the linchpin of his performance, as well as stratospheric screeches. His demented variation on the entrancing tropes of New Age chants was simultaneously impressive, disturbing, and enthralling. His costume was easily the most outlandish, as midset he activated his laser fingers (fingertip-less gloves with laser on each finger) and started a possessed game of Cat’s cradle and even donned the king of all crowns, a giant hat with huge metal spikes protruding on all sides. The summation of all these elements was a complete and total immersion in something challenging, offensive, mesmerizing, and haunting.
As you walked out of Sonar, the fog spilled out of the front door not unlike smoke from a burning building. Your chest struggled to recuperate from the pummeling it had just received as your ears strained vainly to regain some semblance of auditory function. You maybe even felt a bit of burning in your lungs. And maybe that was from sulfur in the air…which confirms your sneaking suspicions that you’ve just witnessed something truly otherworldly.