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Sunn O))) Live At Coalition

So far, it’s not been a bad year at all for those in Brighton wanting to hear something a bit heavier. Back in March, Earth – a major influence on the current band in question – brought their countrified brand of drone to the city, while last month saw grunge legends The Melvins descending. Continuing the trend, last week experimental metal duo Sunn O))) stopped in for a visit, constructing a veritable Stonehenge of speakers in order to dry-clean the ears of the hardy souls that had ventured out in the rain to Coalition on the seafront.

Informed on one side by drone and black metal and on the other by minimalist composition and even avant-garde jazz (the last track on Monoliths and Dimensions is a 17 minute-long tribute to Alice Coltrane) anything Sunn O)))-related is always going to be a fairly serious proposition. That said, what with the robes and dry ice and all, it’s very difficult not to think just how, well… camp the whole thing is. Someone of ill will could easily put this down to the fact that, being American, they might have no sense of irony. A person of greater intelligence meanwhile might suggest that they draw on a long tradition in ‘satanic’ art of deliberately using supposedly bad taste to deconstruct meaning and disorientate the audience (think Huysmans’ La-Bas, Lucifer Rising, Rosemary’s Baby etc). I’ll let you be the judge.

Happily, the fine line between deadly serious and what the hell?!? is ignored right from the beginning, when quietly and without fuss, on come Moscow-based shamanic Buddhist power trio Phurpa. Hunkering down cross-legged dressed in full ritual regalia, they spend their – I’m estimating 45 minute – set Om-ing, honking on giant trumpets and bashing away on big, comedy versions of those drums people sometimes bring back off of holiday from Japan. I say estimating because after not long of this – at least, I assume it was not long – perception of the passing of time has a tendency to slip a bit.

It was not bad. In fact, as the drone continued on (and on) it was possible to be put in mind of dub – instruments drop out and are reintroduced, pitches shift, time stops. Sooner or later, the sensitive Phurpa listener will begin to notice and appreciate everything, approaching in time something resembling exhilaration, along with, if you’re lucky, the obliteration of the ego. Either that, or he/she will get really, really bored.

Sunn O))) are quite a difficult band to review in a live setting, because they never really change the core of what it is they do. Like a more difficult-to-dance-to AC/DC, you can only ever meet them on their own terms, so that not only do you generally know what’s coming, you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to like it or not. I like it just fine, and to my mind this was a good a performance as they’ve put on – at least since the last time I saw them.

On stage, guitar-gurus Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson move away from the more progressive tendencies shown on recent albums to construct a single continuous chunk of black noise harking back to early recordings such as the minimal yet cacophonous drone of Flight of The Behemoth. Rounding the sound out with Moog Druid (as Raspy Black Metal Poetry Druid – Attila Csihar of BM legends Mayhem – intones something that can only be assumed to be quite diabolical), the band create something not unlike a kind of appalling ritual involving sound rather than virgin’s blood.

As the performance continues, the audience is by turns attacked and soothed by an avalanche of sub-bass, with the dynamics being mostly dictated by how loud things go at any given time.  Ridiculously down-tuned guitar chords are not so much played as cast like spells, then left to drift and decay before being cast again. The volume rises and you begin to literally feel the sound – first inside your gut then as waves hitting your face. You feel the urge to close your eyes, hang your head and nod…

After an hour or so of extreme noise terror, the band powered down the on-stage amps themselves and shambled off only slightly quicker than they shambled on. Satisfaction – almost physical – was mixed with relief that it was over; that we’d been released back into what passes for normality. Heading out into the night, it became apparent that it was still wet. Actually, not so much wet as torrential. Biblical, even. I consoled myself with the thought of what other evils might crawl, Cthulhu-like up the shore and into town as the year progresses. What else will there be to tantalise the true believers, new and old, as Brighton turns itself into the south coast’s new home of the metal?

Phil Mason

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