It's an exciting day for dry ice manufacturers whenever SunnO))) come to town. Thick white smoke gushed upwards before their set, nearly filling the cavernous main space of Eagle Rock's quaint Community Cultural Center. A SunnO))) show is part religious ritual, part consumption by sound, and this was the perfect venue for both: arches and columns lined the room in silent, churchly procession; exposed wooden roofbeams held up the ceiling as if they were the ribs of a giant seabeast.
SunnO))) were touring behind their newest opus, Monoliths and Dimensions. It's their best-ever album, not so much because the compositions are stronger -- its four pieces are largely built of the same slow-motion, deteriorating chord cycles that they've employed for years -- but because the extra musicians and musical accoutrements thicken the dread in such fascinating ways. Live, SunnO))) brought along just two guests, vocalist Attila Csihar (also of Mayhem) and utility man Steve Moore (whose Stebmo project I reviewed here). This pared-down quartet might have muted the majesty of the Monoliths and Dimensions material. Instead SunnO))) amplified it (pun intended) into celestial shapes.
Founding members Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley laid down their subductive bedrock of hemorrhaging chords, so loud and distorted that the air molecules seemed to vibrate, and speech took on a ribbed quality, like when you try and talk into a fan. At this volume, every bass scrape sounded like a revving jet engine. Every overtone became the root of its own chord, which generated its own overtones, ad infinitum until we became aware of the entire room as a tumescent vessel, pregnant with sound. The first piece (Dave from Metal Flows In My Veins seems to think it was "Aghartha" from M&D) was low and plodding, sure, but those chords billowed and plumed, unmoored (pun also intended) from their sunken hitching posts by Steve Moore's electric piano flourishes. Csihar throat-sung his own shimmering harmonics. On M&D, Csihar's "idiosyncratic" pronunciations of "tunnel" and "gouges" gets some unintentional chuckles. Live, he's a monstrous force. I wouldn't dare chuckle at a Hungarian dressed in a black monk's cowl.
For the second piece, Moore's trumpet and keyboards splashed through belching feedback drones. Csihar battled antiphonally with the bass guitar, chanting and screaming his way through the thick fog of smoke and sculpted feedback. If SunnO)))'s second piece was indeed "Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)," the band extended it about four times as long as its studio version. Forty minutes is a long time to listen to anything, but of course "listening" was only part of the experience. SunnO))) transformed volume from a purely acoustic phenomenon to a physical one, shaking eardrums, teeth, rafters. This was a visually stunning show, too. A single red light bathed the room in a hellish glow. Every guitar strum carried its accompanying arm gesture, approaching the artfulness (if not the delicacy) of a Japanese tea ceremony. For the last fifteen minutes or so, those with better sightlines than I took in the bizarre sight of Csihar dressed in a burlap sack and a crown of branches. "What the fuck?!" screamed a belligerent guy behind me, twice.
There are those who would scoff at the sea of plaid shirts and leather and dyed hair and bald heads and thin-rimmed glasses and black metal t-shirts at the show. There are those that would decry SunnO)))'s music as insufferably pretentious, or accuse the band's bewildering popularity as a product of image and media instead of worthwhile music, especially as so many influential noise and drone artists languish in obscurity. If you had asked me after their catatonic Grimmrobe Demos anniversary concert last year, I might have agreed with the first assertion. But this show was poles apart. Monotony yielded to process. The air changed. Soul and flesh united in vibration. I could get used to this.