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SunnO))) and Ulver – Terrestrials

Southern Lord

Sunn O))) and Ulver - TerrestrialsOn Terrestrials, drone metal pioneers SunnO))) join with black metal genrefuckers Ulver. Here, SunnO)))’s signature basalt bass sculptures are adorned with electronic flourishes and orchestral elegance to create a sprawling desert landscape. Ra’s priests worship the sun with burnished brass, while poor benighted pilgrims wander through blighted, mosquito-ridden swamps.

Terrestrials picks up where 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions track “Alice” left off, drawing previously unheard connections between heavy metal minimalism and euphoric Spiritual Jazz, in homage to the late free-jazz pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane. Monoliths & Dimensions also featured former Sun Ra Arkestra trombonist Julian Priester, as well as church organs, choirs and a string section, showing that the band was already concerned with expanding the peripheries of heavy, slow, repetitive music and its transcendent capabilities. There are moments on Terrestrials that sound like ’70s electric jazz, surprisingly enough, in the Fender Rhodes riding on the storm at the end of “Eternal Return,” but it’s laced with distant Badalementi muted trumpets and mournful Americana chamber strings.

Terrestrials was actually recorded before Monoliths was released, after collaborating with Ulver at the Øya Festival in Norway, recorded in one colossal night-long recording session at Crystal Canyon Studios in Oslo. The grouping sat, listening to playback, as the sun rose over the fjord, and the concept for “Let There Be Light” was born and the seeds of this collaboration. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson wanted the music “to reflect the light, like some lost pilgrim stretching before the sun,” as Kristoffer Rygg from Ulver put it. This slab of ecstatic improvisation was tinkered with over the next five years by Rygg, with O’ Malley dropping in to provide feedback (pun slightly intended) and insight, to keep the SunnO))) edge. What results sounds way more like Penderecki then Pentagram, and truly turns a new page for what is possible in drone metal.

While SunnO))) did not create drone metal, which is usually credited to the Washington droners Earth, they could be credited with giving the genre credibility and awareness, raising hordes of hooded clones and imitators during the 2000s. And while many bands were simply asking the question, “how can we sound like Sunn O)))?”, the grimmrobed ones have been prying deeper, peeling off the surface veneer to look at what exactly drone music is, and what it can do. In that, I am reminded of another influential band from the 2000s that created or popularized a genre, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. While the imitators merely aped GY!BE’s and Mogwai‘s climactic crescendo rock, when they returned with last year’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend!, the shadowy Québocois were inspired by Rembetika, Greek protest music. They were investigating and expanding their personal mythology and avoided coming back like a cliché. This avoids the inevitable redundancy and decadence of artists who put style over substance, form over content; artists with nothing to say. SunnO))) and Ulver both have TONS to say and are finding new and innovative ways of saying it all the time.

On Terrestrials, they create the closest hybrid to a rock’n’roll classical music I have yet heard, calling upon the sustaining power of loudly amplified stringed instruments to conjure landscapes and physical vibrations. These resonances were then sculpted and augmented with strings and even some percussion that adds an emotional and human element that is unique to the SunnO))) ouevre. The beauty of it is, is that it’s GOOD rock ‘n roll, and it’s GOOD classical music. Maybe there’s some blood in these archaic forms yet?

They also seem to be mining some of SunnO)))’s extra-musical inspirations, as I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy‘s cosmic Americana while trawling these plains and valleys, particularly on “Western Horn”, where buzzing paranoid violins and violas swarm like death-dealing malarial mosquitoes, giving the feeling of trudging through a bog I mentioned earlier. So much of metal and other forms of more experimental music explore the European roots of pagan heathenry, the tribal hypnotism of Africa or the shamanism of South America; and yet the magickal dream life of America still seems obscured and ill-defined.

Clocking in at a terse 35 minutes, Terrestrials is a record you can get lost in, over and over again. It yields fresh inspiration each time you do so. Because SunnO))) and Ulver seem to be carving continents out of thin air, and engraving petroglyphs into the cliffs.

-J Simpson-

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