14 December 2009
The cavernous space of Koko, once known better in the days of music hall and indie rock dance club as the Camden Palace, turns out to be eminently suitable for hosting bands whose raison d’etre is shifting air pressure through the application of low end to the somewhat notoriously loud speakers of the PA. Koko may not exactly have the acoustics of a cathedral (or even the natural reverb of the Norwegian church which hosted SunnO)))‘s excellently immense live double LP Dømskirke), but the tiers of balconies also provide plentiful vantage points for the audience to get a full view – and earful – of the proceedings.
SunnO))) demonstrate their mastery of the art of building anticipation, slowly filling the venue with smoke as their intro broadcasts an avant klang of modernist orchestrations, nicely setting an edgy tone as the audience chatter is slowly dimmed by the weight of what is about to unfold. Their speaker stacks are as much the stars of any SunnO))) show, and it’s possible to glimpse the faint, warm glow of the amp heads’ valves through the gathering tenebrous fug. When the cloaked and hooded figures of the band do eventually arrive onstage and strike the first slow chords of their set, the ever-impressive sound of vintage gear pushed to the limits of their sonic power, it is a rare and beautiful chance to be thoroughly enveloped in a physical world of sound.
While SunnO)))’s set is billed as being a complete performance of Monoliths and Dimensions, it’s somewhat difficult for the quartet onstage to recreate the strings and choirs of the album; but no matter, as the show is one of their strongest yet, both in terms of pace and the impressive spectacle the bring with ritual concentration to the Koko stage. Attila Csihar has abandoned his occasionally ridiculous tree-amoeba costume in favour of ragged monkish robes, his uplit face obscured by a sinister cowl as he manipulates a ghastly green spotlight and a gout of endless smoke to ghoulish effect, his hands moving in arcane gestures as his voice spreads a message as mordant and doom-laden as only he can deliver, matching the bass rumble of Hiwatt cabinets with the omnipresent analogue synth drone controlled by Stephen Moore which underpins Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley‘s slow-motion riffing.
Together they proceed to stretch out time in new directions, loosening the bonds of signature and key from the limits of immediacy; there is no gratification in the obvious comforts of hook or the merest hint of melody. Instead, they move to rhythms which can best be described as geological, the power of sustain and drone locking into a meditative continuum where the resonant frequencies of the venue are as important as the shuddering bass vibrations which creep from the toes to the ribcage with immediate, present effect. Standing at the front, where the sound comes as much from the backline as from the PA, is the place where the experience becomes immersive rather than simply spectacular – for all the ease with which it is possible to dismiss the sight of men in robes grasping the air in worship of their amplifiers or shrieking imprecations at a cold, heartless universe while bathed in sinister lighting effects and the never-ending billows of fog as being essentially silly, it should never be overlooked that the whole point of a SunnO))) concert is as much a theatrical show as it is a musical gig or even a quasi-religious summoning of darkling forces.
By the end of the set, Attila has switched his robes for a costume decked with mirrors, and he makes ceremonious play with a crown of iridescent glass with which he is eventually crowned like a mordant angelus making play with red laser-tipped fingers through the brainpan of a glass head held aloft, into the green smoke and eventually thrown to the crowd as the final act of a band whose ability to astonish and successfully hold time not merely hostage but at slavering bay through the application of sounds, light, and yes, smoke and mirrors, remains transcendent of the necessity to take it all too seriously in and of itself.