Sunn O))) at Barbican Centre, London

Support: Hildur Gudnadóttir
March 21, 2017 at Barbican Centre, London

Convergence festival have been collecting a reputation for innovative programming combining music, art, talks, and workshops and so on, and a couple of years ago I ended up for obscure reasons sitting under a railway arch near Old Street listening to interesting talks about the history and technology of dance music. But this year it’s all about the top of the list headline band, and perhaps also about the venue: Sunn O))) at the Barbican, upstaging even the band’s performance last London performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Like that evening, the extreme metal crowd are enjoying their highbrow surroundings (though I did get told off for approaching the merch table from the wrong direction, yikes). And the scale of the completely sold out show means that there’s a great sense of gathering, it not being possible to cross the foyer without stopping to greet fellow drone devotees who have come from all over.

Hildur Gudnadóttir starts with a hushed, truly minimal experimentation of tones, at first with a whispering soft touch on the vocal chords as if she’s trying to find what might be the tiniest open note that will still fill this vast room. This then gives way to lengthy, sombre, woody tones in what seems like a microscopic but huge magnification of a bowed cello, coaxing a long tone out of the instrument’s imaginary throat. Given ample time to relax into studied contemplation, the sound feels reminiscent of a heavy fallen branch in the woods, gone soft amongst the brown leaves and lichen: tough but yielding, organic and reconciled to decaying slowly into its living surroundings. The guy sat next to me on the high balcony is more familiar with her work than I am, saying that previous performances and recordings he’s heard have been more melodic, and he suggests that this seems like a particularly chosen drone direction for tonight’s occasion. Like a subtler version of the juxtaposition when the group Phurpa have opened for Sunn O))) with their shadowy Tibetan chant mysticism, this too feels like something of a preparatory stage, clearing away attachments to things like tempo and melody, the first stage of an induction before the coming apocalypse of amplifier-archaism.

While there is a great sense of occasion, some attendees aren’t sure about the seated aspect of the show, preferring to have the option to drift and wander. Actually last year I was really looking forward to the Royal Festival Hall show precisely to see what sitting down would be like, since standing at Sunn O))) shows can be quite the endurance test. But as it turned out, that night I sort of missed the draining energy and necessary consciousness of your weary drone-afflicted body that comes with having to prop yourself up through hours of relentless fog-shrouded drone. In any case, tonight any misgivings about seats are happily dispersed by the news emerging over the last week that Sunn O))) will be doing a proper UK tour in July, so there’ll be opportunity then to experience them in more traditional metal settings. Another thing about the Royal Festival Hall show, and also things like watching Bong play the main stage at Roadburn: my impulse was to get right towards the front, but in the event I came to feel like I’d missed experiencing a different kind of power, of looking out over a vast smoking cauldron of droning bass amplification from a high place. So when this Barbican show was announced I deliberately picked my seat up on the topmost balcony of the cavernous hall.

With the talk previously about the Icelandic ambient cellist composer, I wondered whether it would be a moment when vocalist Attila stepped back- while he has been working with the band for years, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley have often maintained that they two are the core of Sunn O))) with a revolving (and stunningly creative and diverse) cast of collaborators. But Attila was front and centre when the six piece set-up for this show was released a week or so prior, together with Gudnadóttir, longtime moog associate Tos Nieuwenhuizen and also Stephen Moore, all six in front of the insane temple complex of amplifier monoliths. Actually, word circulates that for some recent shows they’ve had Attila go out first, and that proves to be the case here. I’m mildly surprised that the smoke machines haven’t already been wafting thick grey fumes for hours before they take the stage, but they start now, while the cloaked Hungarian extreme experimentalist begins his croaking invocations. It’s a great move, linking the quieter tones of the support set while gathering further anticipation for the approaching storm. Attila’s range is impressive both in octaves and in weird styles, so it’s great to have an opportunity to hear him explore the lower reaches in a moment where that sonic space isn’t yet flooded with the torrents of bass distortion that we all know are coming. There’s overtone singing, throaty monkish commands to unseen spectres, self-absorbed mumbling of a freak locked in the attic… altogether it’s a scrambled liturgy for confusion, mystery and loss. It’s a great solo section, though perhaps is better described as vocal and smoke-machine duo: rather than entering an already clouded stage, Attila is joined by a backlit rising pillar of smoke that sometimes billows out from his gesticulating limbs, then rising high behind him.

Instead of the thick masses of grey at some other Sunn O))) shows, here the use was more limited, and it had an entirely different effect- instead of a bludgeoning force of rendering sight mostly incapacitated (which is definitely powerful), here it was a subtle instrument, smoke caterpillars crawling across the stage, investigating and exploring spaces between amps and monitors and cloaked bodies before drifting and climbing upwards in nebulous drifts lit by tall columns of light. From high up, it was like a god’s-eye view of a cloud-wreathed ritual performed at the peak of the holy mountain, or at times a secret and obscure meeting of creatures on the ocean floor. Moore’s trombone was a fabulous addition to the sound, recalling Monoliths and Dimensions in the judiciously placed notes, perfectly formed and shining amongst the raging flows of ash like polished jewels or volcanic glass. As well, it formed a great image at the end when the Grimm-robed figure walked off stage holding the instrument. The sound was spectacular, and totally absorbing through shifting panels of gravelly metal portentousness, unclassifiable oddness and ominous visionary corrosion. Attila of course returns in his mirror wizard outfit, masquerading as the bastard child of the statue of liberty and a malevolent disco ball to careen through a version of ‘Candlegoat’ before the arms are raised in exhausted but rejuvenating finale.

In a sense it’s theatrical, with the outlandish robes and studied gestures and (literally) smoke and mirrors, but in a sense it’s also the opposite: these things aren’t really backdrops to evoke another time or place where a narrative or tableau is supposed to be happening. Instead they simultaneously focus on and dissolve focus into the things that are really here: smoke, slow movements, powerful notes. And they somehow highlight the background material basis for those things that are present- the smoke makes air thick so it seems we’re seeing colour and light themselves rather than seeing with them; and in the wild excesses of bass distortion, slowness, repetition and amplification, we’re not hearing music made up of sounds, but hearing what sound itself sounds and feels like.

For periods my eyes closed and my mind rolled back in my head, sent to the void by the endless monochrome slates of drone. For other long sections, even while consciously attending to the movements in sound and smoke, the minimal excess blanks out any narrative, thereby ridiculing this later attempt to configure a representation into paragraphs. Actually I think this is where discussion of the weirdly cathartic power of the heavy heavy drone comes in (available from other select few bands too), a forced evacuation from constraints of language and structured thought. To instantly witness this almost scary power, I recommend looking besides and behind you at a Sunn O))) show, once you’re at least an hour into the amplified abyss. Without being an intrusive idiot and glaring at people in a weird state, just a glance will suffice: people look utterly drained, almost sorrowful, introspective in massive extension of sound, broken down, blissed out, blown out, checked out but intensely inhabiting themselves, haunted, humble, stunned. But most of all it’s honest, as if all masks and pretences have been discarded as totally unnecessary in the wake of the devotion, not to the band but to pure sound itself in the resonating body of the audience. The strange theatrical ritual paraphernalia is scaffolding that falls away, and drone becomes the only reality.

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