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SunnO))) / Phurpa (live at Meltdown)

The Royal Festival Hall, London
18 August 2015

Throat-singing. It’s the new rock and roll. Or the OLD rock and roll, if you subscribe to the theory espoused by the likes of luminaries such as Patti Smith, Julian Cope and me that a rock concert is essentially the modern variant on religious worship. Phurpa bridge this gap across time and space by playing ancient devotional Bön music (from an incredibly early form of Buddhism) in a rock setting, sat cross-legged on the floor of the Royal Festival Hall in front of an audience of metalheads.

Phurpa (Picture: Meltdown) Phurpa (Picture: Meltdown)

There’s the occasional bit of old Tibetan instrumentation, but mainly it’s all about the throat-singing, an eerie, guttural drone that comes in waves as they pause to breathe before returning to the fray with renewed intensity. It’s actually quite uncomfortable to listen to, yet still intensely compelling and compellingly intense. It’s not hard to imagine they, and indeed we, are in a cave, or a yurt (insert NIN “I yurt myself today” joke here, if you want) as they sit beneath a single spotlight, barely moving and hidden under traditional pointy hats. The effect is completed when they light a bowl of incense and the stage fills with smoke.

SunnO))) (Picture: Dan Mudford) SunnO))) (Picture: Dan Mudford)

After they leave, the stage continues to fill with smoke, but this time the cause is more industrialised, as SunnO)))‘s smoke machines take advantage of the interval to do some scene-setting before the band take the stage.

And what a stage. Familiar to anyone who’s been to a SunnO))) gig, the set-up can be easily described to anyone who hasn’t, as long as they’ve played Tim Schafer‘s much-maligned but essentially lovable Brutal Legend — you know the bit where there’s the whole cliff made of amps, and any bird venturing too close is struck from the sky by the sheer force of the volume? (You don’t? OK, well there’s a bit where there’s a whole cliff of amps, and any bird venturing too close is struck from the sky by the sheer force of the volume). It’s like that. Only crossed with Stonehenge.

SunnO))) (Picture: Meltdown) SunnO))) (Picture: Meltdown)

And into the smoke come the blokes in cloaks. The rest of the band, being all clad in black and stood in front of black amps (bringing to mind Electric Wizard‘s “RISE! Black amps tear the sky” from Dopethrone) are well-nigh invisible for a lot of the show, leaving centre stage to Attila Csihar, who slips in and out of vision among the by now very thick smoke. If Phurpa were an ancient ritual, SunnO))) go further back. While many bands try to sound like the Apocalypse, SunnO))) go in the other direction. This is music from a time before time, presided over by the throat-singing, whispering, cajoling and screaming of a Devil in torment. If Phurpa was religion, this is insanity from a time before rational thought. This is the sound of glaciers melting, of universes forming, of the war between Heaven and Hell. Of very loud and very slow guitars. (Having just reread my all-time favourite fantasy novel, Robert Holdstock‘s Mythago Wood, I find myself wondering if this is what it sounds like inside the head of the Urscumug, the primal hero from a pre-human age).

The first time I saw SunnO))) it was next door at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where they’d been invited by Jarvis Cocker as part of his Meltdown festival. The show was great, but it never really “clicked”, because the volume just wasn’t there — the ideal SunnO))) gig would be one where you didn’t even notice the sound coming in your ears because it was filling every part of your body (like, for example, their gig at Koko a while back). Now, a few years later, they’ve upgraded to the better room, invited this time by David Byrne, this year’s Meltdown curator. Two musicians mostly famous in the popular consciousness for quirky, intelligent and lyrical pop music but also both very much into the potentialities of sound and the nature of music itself can clearly see there’s something fascinating going on here, and when exposed to SunnO))) live and in full effect it’s not hard to see why.

SunnO))) (Picture: Meltdown) SunnO))) (Picture: Meltdown)

The bass travels up the chairs and gets you right in the ass, and it’s hold onto your fillings time as after an unspecified and ultimately unknowable (without a watch, but who’s looking at one of those when there’s such sublime darkness to get lost in?) Attila leaves the stage, only to return in his shiny armour and spiked diadem for one final assault on civilisation. SunnO))) have always been great at pacing themselves — you don’t get it all at once. It builds and builds, slowly and subtly, until you suddenly realise you’re not quite sure when you crossed over from thinking “this isn’t loud enough” to being overwhelmed. Attila’s black metal screeches seem to reflect a movement back to a time before words, a time even before singing or the throats to do it with.

They take a bow and leave to a standing ovation. And time starts to creep in around the edges again, until we’re back in London, back in the twenty-first century, back into history.

-Words: Justin Farrington-
Meltdown and Dan Mudford-

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