Drone-doom legends/fog enthusiasts Sunn O))) returned to Boston on Tuesday night for the first time in six years, and brought their Earth-rattling wall of amplifiers with them. Southern Lord label-mates Dead in the Dirt opened.
My last visit to the lovely Coolidge Corner Theatre was a date to see Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Strange, then, to find myself watching an avant-metal performance in the very same room on Tuesday night. One would be hard pressed to recognize the place though. The theater was already inundated with fog as the unexpectedly sizable sell-out crowd filed into their seats. Standard lights and exit signs took on an eerie glow, and the whole place was reminiscent of a screening room at the gates of Hell. As if all that wasn’t enough to create an atmosphere, a veritable wall of amplifiers (ten stacks in total) loomed over all from the stage. Before they strike a single note, Sunn O))) have an audience drawn into a totally different universe.
Between the fog, the robes and the utterly skull-crushing volume levels, Sunn O))) have picked up something of a reputation as a live act. If there’s one thing the diehard fans, the curious onlookers and detractors can agree on, it’s that seeing the band is an experience like little else. They take music to its absolute extremes, creating something that’s equal parts composition, performance art and sensory overload experiment. It’s not merely something you hear, it’s something you feel in every quaking bone in your body. The room and everything in it rumbles and resonates with sub-bass frequencies that melt together, diverge and regroup like sonic mercury. Words can’t quite do it justice.
Before Sunn O))) would pummel us with oppressive drone however, we took a different type of pummeling from Atlanta-based grindcore crew Dead in the Dirt. True to their ethos, the band spent thirty minutes bashing out angry hyper-speed hardcore punctuated by the occasional sludgy breakdown. Grind isn’t exactly my scene, but there’s no denying a band so ferociously committed to their sound. This set also marks the only time I’m ever likely to see a crowd engaged in so much polite, seated headbanging.
At precisely the strike of midnight, Sunn O))) emerged from behind their amplifiers and began conjuring a massive storm of distorted chords and pulsating feedback. Core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson wielded their guitars less as instruments than as divining rods. Cloaked in black and dwarfed by their own speaker cabinets, the duo bring new meaning to the phrase ‘amplifier worship.’ They were joined during the set’s first half only by Tos Nieuwenhuizen, who brought rippling swells of Moog synthesizer into the sonic maelstrom. The result was an assault of growling low-end frequencies that rarely let up throughout the ninety minute set. Around the halfway mark, masked veteran black and doom metal vocalist Atilla Csihar also took the stage. Csihar’s deep, rasping vocal style was an effective complement to the bone-rattling instrumentals; an ominous presence speaking and chanting, floating just above the roar.
And what a roar it was. ‘Loud’ is an adjective you may have heard associated with Sunn O))). It’s likely the primary adjective associated with them, in fact. O’Malley and Anderson revel in the power of sheer, crushing volume, and their live show lives up to every story rumor and story. When Sunn O))) is in full swing, the entire room seems to shake. The ground itself seems to tremble. It’s as much a physical experience as an auditory one. The all-consuming sound and atmosphere create a space where it’s easy to get lost. There’s no telling precisely where one song ends and the next begins. Molten doom riffs cycle in slow motion and subtly morph from one to another. At one point, O’Malley and Anderson placed their guitars atop their amps and left the stage, leaving only Nieuwenhuizen’s soundscapes and Csihar to intone over them. The duo would then return fifteen minutes later and lead a somehow-even-louder-than-before charge to the performance’s end. Sunn O))) seems to handle everything at a glacial pace, dynamics shifts included. Their aesthetic requires patience, but the payoff is well worth it if you’re willing to indulge them. The sonic cataclysm following that tension-building break was a transcendent concert moment indeed.
The experience of a Sunn O))) show is not one that’s easily replicated. It’s a singular style of performance, and they own it. Whether you find the band’s impenetrable walls of drone brilliant or aimlessly pretentious, there’s no denying that they craft something you won’t soon forget. Their live show leaves an impression that extends even to their recorded output. It sheds new light on the sort of hypnotic sensory experience at the heart of their music, and it was surely one of the most unique and noteworthy performances I’ve seen this year.