It’s been a good year for well-placed teasers and stealth advertising. Last week Mark Frost and David Lynch announced the return of Twin Peaks with simultaneous “That gum you like is going to come back in style” tweets, and everyone of course clocked it instantly. But the king of them all in 2014 was when Southern Lord just put out an image of the word “SCOTT O)))”. Because of all the Scotts in the world, there was only one it could realistically be. But could such a thing even be possible?Yes. Yes, it could. It was, and it’s happened. Scott Walker and Sunn O))), two of the most uncompromising acts in the business, have gone into the studio together. And if you’ll forgive me for sounding like a Buzzfeed headline for a second or two, what happened next was incredible — it’s in my personal top two most intense albums of 2014, the other being (of course) Swans‘ To Be Kind.
It’s a pretty perfect match, really. I mean, Sunn O))) make a wonderful noise even when it’s just the music, but who doesn’t like a bit of a sing-song? Humans react to human voices. It’s a thing. But when you’re unleashing the hounds of sub-bass Hell, you can’t have just anyone warbling over the top. So it’s important to work with just the right people. They usually use Attila Csihar, the ground-glass-throated black metal legend. They’ve had the Arch-Drude of Wessex himself, Mr Julian Cope. And they’ve wanted (and will hopefully try again – they really should) to work with Noddy-bothering Gnostic genius David Tibet. Where can you possibly go from there, other than the semi-mythical Scott Walker? I mean, just how crazy could that possibly be?And the answer is: really quite crazy indeed. Though, paradoxically, this is one of the most easily-accessible things either of them have done in years. (I said this to a friend yesterday. “Commercial?” he asked. “Umm… no. Over 9,000 miles away from commercial”). Scott gives Sunn O))) a focus, and Sunn O))) keep Walker anchored to the planet (yeah, I suck at astrophysics) by the sheer gravity of their tectonic riffing. Most of this album could even be classed as “songs”, they’re that structured. When the music starts it sounds like we’ve come in in the middle, THAT VOICE declaiming “OH THE WIDE MISSOURI” in what to anyone else would be a crescendo, but which here is quickly replaced by the arrival of the instantly recognisable Sunn O))) drone. This, my friends, is “Brando”, in which the titular movie star gets the shit beaten out of him by all and sundry (seemingly while lying in a bass bin), to the accompaniment of whip-cracks and sudden, jarring squalls of guitar. “A beating would do me a world of good” sings Scott to whistles and thuds. And Sunn O))), being Sunn O))), keep making you think they’re at full-tilt (c wut i did thar?) before redoubling their attack. And by the time we get that initial faux-crescendo back, it’s like light relief. This is immense music, made by immense talents. As statements of intent go, it’s pretty definitive. How do you follow that? With “Herod 2014”, apparently. Simultaneously deeply upsetting and comfortingly traditional (in that its structure can be discerned if you squint a bit), it’s a nightmarish tale which, like most of Scott’s oeuvre, can be taken in many different ways. Although none of them are particularly nice. “She’s hidden her babies away… the goon from the Stasi is left far behind them…” He even gets a Sound Of Music reference in there, although the nature of the threat is left worryingly vague: “Is she shaking them hard in dry-run cabaret?” Is she indeed. To be honest, this is the track that sounds most like I would have imagined a Scott/Sunn O))) collaboration, and even then it’s full of surprises.
The biggest surprise of all, for me, is the album’s centrepiece, “Bull”. Parts of this are actually doom metal. Not drone doom, like you’d expect from Sunn O))), but actual doom metal, like the womb that birthed them. With grinding and chugging and drum rolls and headbanging riffs. But only parts. I guess it should come as no surprise that this is an album that understands dynamics better than anyone except maybe Swans, given that both Walker and Sunn O))) have always been as concerned, if not more concerned, with sound itself than with what we’d call “music”.“Fetish” is a slightly — though only slightly — more restrained affair, shaken percussion and industrial bass circled by demonic/angelic trebles, with the occasional eruption into something that almost, but not quite, rocks out. Scott, as always, uses his voice like an instrument — a phrase which has become something of a cliché when talking about the most interesting vocalists. In comparison to someone like Mike Patton, though, who vocalises the human equivalent of percussion, feedback and strings, listening to Scott is more like hearing your bassoon suddenly start reciting abstract poetry in the middle of the trickier passages of The Rite Of Spring. They’re an interesting pairing not least because of their respective trajectories — both began in relatively commonplace areas of work, be it perfect pop music or very dark metal, before pursuing their obsessions out into space. Here it’s the combination of Neubauten-esque echoed metal-bashing and the use of rock music itself as just another instrument in the orchestra, a drum-heavy middle-eight thrown in as something to add to the mix rather than as an inevitable refrain.
And then it all gets spooky again as we close with “Lullaby” which, as you may have already guessed, is not really the sort of thing that would help you sleep. “Tonight my assistant will pass among you… hey nonny nonny…” The bass throbs like the blood of some massive sea creature in an ocean of odd and disturbingly unidentifiable sounds, before we hit the “chorus”, which is part prog-rock guitar riff, part atonal Nurse With Wound-esque sonic barrage. “The most intimate personal choices and requests central to your personal dignity will be sung,” he mourns, and at this point it’s not hard to imagine that they just have been. “Why don’t minstrels go from house to house howling songs they way they used to?” he laments. And you kind of think, “You know, Scott, they kinda do, in a manner of speaking. It just sounds a lot weirder these days.”One of those wonderful collaborations which, like Altar, Sunn O)))’s classic pairing with Boris, brings out the best of both worlds. The Third Mind as applied to larger groupings. Sonic dialectic; musical alchemy. Or to put it another way, genius.