Review: Sunn O))) – Life Metal

First released on vinyl earlier this month to coincide with Record Store Day, Life Metal is the first stand-alone Sunn O))) studio album since the mixed reception of 2015’s Kannon. Since their inception, the Washington drone metallers have always had a knack for finding other great musicians to work with, making it rare that we hear from just the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley. Their eighth album marks a departure from working with Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar, but sees Moog synthesiser player Tos Nieuwenhuizen joining the ranks, as well as an additional cellist, bassist and organ player. Even when Sunn O))) aren’t strictly collaborating (as with their previous albums with Scott Walker, Boris and Ulver), there is still a great sense of cooperation in their recent works.

The biggest talking point here is that the album has been recorded by one of the best engineers in the game, Steve Albini, directly live to magnetic tape. When the band teased a photo of themselves and Albini together in the studio, it was safe to say they had the firm attention of every audiophile and noise-freak on the internet, making many wonder why this match made in heaven hadn’t been cemented much earlier. But how does the god of recording drums fare recording a band that play without them?

After carefully placing the record on your turntable and blasting the volume up as loud as you can get away with in a residential area (MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS), it becomes clear that this is as good as Sunn O))) home listening can possibly get. Even the most die-hard of the band’s fans will tend to agree, their recorded output never quite reaches the sonic magnitude of their insane live performances; but this is surely the next best thing. Opening side-length piece ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ may utilise synthesisers and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soothing clean vocals, and side B’s ‘Troubled Air’ adds in some clanging percussion, but as a whole, Life Metal feels like back to basics for the core duo. Albini gives Anderson and O’Malley the space and freedom to just drone away, capturing all those low-end frequencies spectacularly.

The second record of the double-disc vinyl set actually impresses most; which happens to contain the two most atypical Sunn O))) sounding pieces on the album. Running at 20 minutes each, the sonics focus on those devastating guitars, which are left free to cut loose, sounding so organic and menacing. Conceptually and compositionally, there aren’t really any surprises in store. Sunn O))) are still very content to ride that two-note back-and-forth chord “progression” that has become so synonymous with the duo that they could probably copyright it by now (and hardened fans can hum it too). Yet there is something immensely satisfying about hearing that wall-rattling rumble at colossal volumes. Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars buzz and churn away, dominating your entire living room and possessing your mind in a hypnotic trance.

Life Metal isn’t as experimental as Monoliths & Dimensions, it’s not as frightening as Black One, and it’s not as varied as their collaborative works with Boris and Scott Walker, but when it comes to pure drone metal mastery, it does capture the very fundamentals of Sunn O))) immensely well. Life Metal is head music that you don’t just listen to, but let become a part of you.

Life Metal is out now on Southern Lord. Purchase here.

Words: Chris “Frenchie” French


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