Purvey A Sonic Doom: Exploring The O)))verse (1996-2004)
|Written by:||RaduP, X-Ray Rod, Apothecary|
Radu: There is perhaps no genre as misunderstood and living as close to the borders of what can be considered music as much as drone music. Long winded repetitive sounds, sometimes stretching the same note to unbelievable lengths to make it unrecognizable to mere musical concepts like tempo or time signatures, leaving behind nothing but the eerie timbre of something that feels alien. It comes as no surprise that a lot of people dislike drone music, and by extension drone metal, as something that all sounds the same and takes no talent and musical ability to make. After all, just about anybody can plug their guitar in an amp and play very very slowly. But then again, despite being so easy to make, once one gets accustomed to it, it's clear that it's not as easy to get right. And there's quite some philosophy behind it.
No drone artist has done as much to popularize the genre as much as Sunn O))) did, essentially becoming poster boys of sorts for the genre. When one thinks of drone metal, they think of huge amps, smoke machines, eerie low notes, and most importantly: robe-wearing cloaked entities playing guitars. And that image is imprinted in people's minds almost solely due to the duo of Stephen O'Malley (aka SOMA) and Greg Anderson. Of course this isn't to say that bands like Earth, Boris, Nadja or Jesu, and to some extent even Melvins, don't deserve their own share of recognition, nor that the duo did everything on their own without a massive cast of collaborators, as we shall see.
Not only is Sunn O)))'s discography fairly voluminous, but SOMA and Greg Anderson have their fair share of other projects they were or are still involved in. We tried covering as much of those as possible, but a lot of Sunn O))) releases and side projects, as well as everything O)))-related that didn't directly include SOMA or Greg Anderson, were left out for brevity's sake. Even with what we did cover, we ended up with three articles' worth of releases to talk about. So join me, Che and Rod as we go through a huge bulk of the O)))verse, in an effort inspired by our very own Baz Anderson's series of Getting Into articles.
Thorr's Hammer - Dommedagsnatt (1996)
The beginning of this story starts in a somewhat traditional way. The iconic duo of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson formed Thorr's Hammer back in 1994. It is fairly basic yet brooding and dark death/doom metal. It's a moody listen and for its time the riffs truly packed a punch with their heavy, sludge-like sound. Despite the somewhat traditional take on the genre, there are some intriguing ingredients. I'm obviously talking about the vocals. More than 2 decades after the EP's release and you'll still be hard-pressed to find female grunts and growls as brutal as the ones that Runhild Gammelsæter displays here. Make a mental note to keep track of her spiritual, beautiful chants and psychotic howls though... As she will perform again, some years later, with Sunn O))) and Khlyst. After Runhild's departure (she was an exchange student after all), Thorr's Hammer ceased to exist. Even though the project ended so soon, it left the rest of the band hungry for more and after almost 25 years, it really is a worthy first chapter in this heavy tale..
Rod gives this one 2,5 / 5 Hammers
Bandcamp | Spotify
Burning Witch - Crippled Lucifer (1998)
Stephen O'Malley, Greg Anderson and drummer Jamie Sykes decided to further explore the possibilities of heavier, more extreme and disgusting sounds. Thus, the influential Burning Witch was born. Sludge metal had already been established and gaining popularity at this point but, unlike most of the contemporaries from this period, Burning Witch rarely had any type of spike in tempo whatsoever. The music is slow, eroding, and it carries a highly corrosive and disgusting atmosphere on every song.
The never-ending wave of riffs and hypnotizing feedback reaches a tipping point with Edgy 59, the project's very unique frontman. His unique voice perfectly captures the dirty and bleak palette of this group. His high-pitched screams and screeches are some of the most agonizing you'll find in metal. Some unique and harrowing clean vocals can also be found. There is a slight nasal tone to them that enhances the sickness factor, making Edge 59 sound like a tortured Ozzy Osbourne, inches from completely falling apart and losing his mind in tears. Crippled Lucifer captures the band's short trajectory brilliantly with suggestive hymns of decadent solitude and slow, ambient-filled slowburners. These tracks are filled with suffocating suspension and the type of "capture & release" approach that solidifies this genre of extreme metal. They serve as the ideal gateway to the bizarre landscapes that would be created later.
Rod gives this one 3,5 / 5 Stakes
Bandcamp | Spotify
Goatsnake - Goatsnake Vol. 1 (1999)
Founded in 1996, Goatsnake came to express a very different side of Greg Anderson's musical personality than either Thorr's Hammer and Burning Witch had in the past or that Sunn O))) would in the future. With Anderson at the helm as the sole guitarist, plus the talented Pete Stahl on vocals as well as Greg Rogers and Guy Pinhas from The Obsessed on drums and bass, Goatsnake zeroed in on much more of a fuzzy, old time stoner doom sound. The bluesy Southern influences are not subtle here (was the Confederate flag on the ship on the album cover not enough of a hint?), but with this debut they were laid as more of a foundation than anything else. With future Goatsnake material, as we will see, those influences would end up being taken slightly farther.
Che gives this one 3,5 / 5 Goats
Bandcamp | Spotify
Sunn O))) - The Grimmrobe Demos (1999)
Here it is. The inaugural release in the saga of black robes, smoke machines, and the (in)famous maxim that "MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS." In certain ways, Sunn O)))'s debut demo is a natural descendant of the plodding, instrumental drone doom previously established by Earth on their Earth 2 debut, a fact it doesn't exactly make unclear by naming one of its tracks after Dylan Carlson. But even this early on Sunn O))) already managed to show signs of owning this style and making it their own, slowing down the Earth technique to an even more glacial pace and also throwing a spooky sense of dark ambiance into the equation. The Grimrobe Demos is perhaps the prime example of a more "meat and potatoes" Sunn O))) sound, as it lacks much of the subtleties and extravagances of some of their later material, but it remains as a crucial foundation in the band's evolution.
Che gives this one 4 / 5 Robes
Bandamp | Spotify
Goatsnake - Flower Of Disease (2000)
The sophomore Goatsnake album isn't really too much different from the debut preceding, but, as mentioned previously, it does go a wee bit deeper into the "bluesy Southern" style at the heart of the band's groovy stoner doom formula. The harmonica interlude on the title track, as well as its presence on "El Coyote," does quite a lot to impart this feeling. But it also goes deeper in terms of the catchy, shooby doo waw type riffs and confident solos from Anderson, as well as the charismatic wails from Pete Stahl, which this time sound even more powerful than before. Indeed, with Flower Of Disease Goatsnake dropped many hints that could have led one to a reasonable suspicion that they were one of those bands that would just get progressively better with each release. Unfortunately, however, it would be another 15 years before the group would be able to show people whether or not those suspicions were correct.
Che gives this one 4 / 5 Snakes
Bandcamp | Spotify
Sunn O))) - ØØ Void (2000)
At the start of the millennium, the robed duo properly started their project with their first full length. It shares many similarities with the demo while honing their sound. It is what I like to call "meat & potatoes" Sunn O))), as it displays the main core sound: Huge, humming walls of riffs and feedback. Here you may find close to zero percussion, vocals (limited to chanting) nor any other use of instruments besides guitars and bass.
The Earth-worshipping is strong early in their career. That being said, the atmosphere is too different and that is one of the fascinating things with Sunn O))): This feels more metal and menacing than Earth ever felt. Where does the metal exist in this type of music? In the atmosphere, texture and how the riffs carry themselves! It is an alien, oppressive and surrealistic tone which is a trope that is closely tied with Sunn O)))'s early output.
These walls of gargantuan riffs may be uniform but they paradoxically provide the tools of variation. It is much easier to point out the small details on top of this canvas of sound, as the experimentation is kept in the background. The change in moods is very subtle but it grabs you on a subconscious level, building the fundamentals of this magical genre.
Rod gives this one 3,5 / 5 Amps
Bandcamp | Spotify
Khanate - Khanate (2001)
After Burning Witch's demise, SOMA revisited the extreme side of sludge metal while teaming up with James Plotkin. Plotkin's vast experience with experimental and extreme music along with SOMA's heavy-hitting riffs provided incredible yet unnerving results.
Khanate is my favorite project in which SOMA was involved. Unlike the bizarre, otherworldly horror and uneasiness found in some of Sunn O)))'s output, Khanate feels visceral, physical and all too real of a nightmare. There is always something lurking at every corner. Like the painful feedbacks or the morbid basslines right before the riffs hit you. Another of Khanate's selling factors is the drum work. What can you really do with drums in a drone/sludge album? The answer is a hell of a lot if you do it right. They are unpredictable, adding a "capture & release" formula. And the vocals, Oh man... Alan Dubin is just out of this world. There is nothing okay about his vocals. It's always too much but in the best way possible. He perfectly embodies the idea of a man pushed to his very limit of frustration and hatred.
SOMA truly struck gold after associating himself with Plotkin and co. This presented a high influx of inspiration and new forms of composition. The maddening sound sticks with you. Out of Khanate's albums this is the most heavy, filthy and physical. It's unstable, demoralizing and atonal horror. No joy, indeed.
Rod gives this one 4 / 5 Teeth
Sunn O))) - Flight Of The Behemoth (2002)
Sunn O)))'s sophomore album is the most corrosive album in their discography. You can feel the droning riffs pouring down like acid rain. It's also one of the hardest albums to get into as it is too different from their more traditional sound but too stripped-down for those who enjoy a more out-there experience.
The songs are often simple yet well-composed. By now this is a sound that Sunn O))) has mastered. The collaboration with Japanese noise guru Merzbow is refreshing though: Electronic, disturbing keyboards and other effects clash with the glacial riffs, leaving the listener lost in a storm of harsh feedback. The most (in)famous track here is the Metallica cover though. The riffs are ridiculously slow and down-tuned as usual but the bells in the background haunt the listener's mind, evoking Cliff Burton's dying moments. Monstrous, deep and gargling growls can be found near the end, presenting a one of a kind sound. A shame the cloaked duo did not use them on later albums as they are highly disturbing.
Flight Of The Behemoth is a somewhat simple album, unfortunately and uncomfortably sitting in between Sunn O)))'s previous achievements. It does have its own sound and personality but more focus and attention is needed to unravel it's hidden beauty.
Rod gives this one 3 / 5 Bells
Bandcamp | Spotify
Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine - Rampton (2002)
Teeth Of Lions Rule The Divine was something of an O)))verse supergroup, featuring SOMA on guitar, Greg Anderson on bass, Iron Monkey's Justin Greaves on drums, and Lee Dorrian of Cathedral and Napalm Death on vocals. Being active for barely over a year, the band ended tragically early, but in that short timespan they did nonetheless manage to release Rampton, an absolute drone doom Behemoth more focused on a repetitive, gradually escalating doom approach, that offers plenty to think about regarding what the foursome would have done had they stayed together longer.
There are certainly similarities to what each of the members had done previously with TOLRTD, but Rampton is quite a distinct entity for the fact that it sees each of its personnel performing in ways they really hadn't up to that point anywhere else in their respective discographies. Anderson and SOMA lay the foundation with a lumbering doom approach somewhat similar to their Burning Witch work, but a bit grittier and almost industrialized in a way. Lee Dorrian's vocals sound somewhat similar to his Napalm Death material, but the slowed tempo makes them somehow even more gravelly and tortured. And Justin Greaves, who had previously employed a very punk heavy, D beat drum style, slows down to more of a suspenseful pace here that invites far more interesting fills and creative patterns into the mix. Assembling an ensemble of formidable doom talent, Rampton is a forgotten gem from what very well might be The Greatest Supergroup That Never Was.
Che gives this one 4,5 / 5 Lions
Bandcamp | Spotify
House Of Low Culture - Gettin' Sentimental (2002)
House Of Low Culture is first and foremost a side-project of Aaron Turner (of Sumac, Old Man Gloom and most of all ex-Isis fame). To the initiated, Turner's interests in ambient music are pretty well known, especially considering this project is about as old as Isis. On Gettin' Sentimental he would collaborate with our very own Steven O'Malley, joined also by Jay Randall of Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Jeff Caxide of Isis. Surprisingly, Gettin' Sentimental is a very short endeavor, barely over 20 minutes in length, but with a fairly fitting title. It's ambient music where, at least by ambient standards, things are moving, soundscapes are forming, vocals are heard, guitars are strummed, electronics are throbbing, the field recordings sound dreamlike and eerie. But it's all very desolate, bleak, and dare I say... sentimental?
Radu gives this one 3 / 5 Moods
Lotus Eaters - Mind Control For Infants (2002)
Aaron Turner and Steven O'Malley meet again, this time in a supergroup trio with Khanate's James Plotkin. And quite akin to House Of Low Culture, this focuses more on the ambient side of things, though not necessarily on the dark ambient one. A lot of the soundscapes do feel a bit eerie at times, but quite ethereal at others. Some dominated by the sounds of strumming guitars, some by pulsating synths. Regardless of method and mood, it manages to be pretty evocative, and only slightly more inspired by the 2007 follow-up and Lotus Eaters' only other album, Wurmwulv. I have yet to confirm if any infants were mind controlled by this album.
Radu gives this one 3 / 5 MK-Ultras
Sunn O))) - White1 (2003)
"For this be the wall of Johnny Guitar" states Julian Cope, formerly of The Teardrop Explodes, in his only collaboration with Sunn O))). "My Wall", the opening track on White1, features a poem by the aforementioned recited over trademark droning guitars, poem I have heard described as "bonkers" and I am not going to disagree. White1 sees Sunn O))) at their most experimental yet, with a bigger presence of vocals, whether poem recitations or the moans and whispers on "A Shaving of the Horn that Speared You". White1 also has one of their bassiest tracks with "The Gates of Ballard", which also some not very well programmed drums that do create somewhat of stoner metal sound, as well as a vocal performance (this time a Norwegian poem) from Runhild Gammelsæter, vocalist of the two main members' previous band, Thorr's Hammer.
As drone-heavy as the first two songs are, the experimental side is expanded in the very eerie and stripped down second latter section of the record. That is especially true if you also count the bonus track on the 2018 remastered version of the album, which also includes a dark ambient keyboard-heavy track called "Cut WoodEd". The keyboard is performed by Rex Ritter, in his first collaboration of the band, and he would go on to sporadically collaborate and perform with the band from here on. A lot of the experiments here do have Sunn O))) at their most offbeat yet, but not everything, especially not the second track, hit as well as they could. Which is a shame, since they didn't collaborate with Runhild again.
Radu gives this one 2,5 / 5 Walls
Bandcamp | Spotify
Khanate - Things Viral (2003)
Surreal. Psychotic. Visceral. There are so many words in the same vein that can be used to describe the abstract horror that Khanate unleashes. While it was easier to grasp the insanity found in their self-titled debut, Things Viral is far less kinder in its approach. The horror takes a completely different form here as the more solid song structures found before are completely thrown out of the window. Leaving the extreme side of sludge and going deeper into drone and dark ambient landscapes. These unbelievably slow, formless tracks feature heavy use of silence and pauses to pull tension like no album since. The production is so much cleaner, as if the band wants the listener to hear and feel every little detail. The agonizing feedback, the drumming's dead tone or the quiet murmurs... The production makes the band's music stand in a vacuum, pulling the strings of tension ever so slightly until you can't take it anymore.
Alan Tubin is the star of this unnerving and unique experience. His vocals and lyrics are far from being the random work of a maniac. This time there is a sense of purpose and unmeasurable sickness on them. Every word is a painful stab. With plenty of echoing and background effects, they will stick with you for a long time even after the album ends and your eyes stare, baffled, at nothing in particular. Lost forever in red glory.
Rod gives this one 5 / 5 Madhouses
Sunn O))) - White2 (2004)
One would expect the obviously paired and released just one year apart White1 and White2 albums to be consistent and similar, but that's not really the case. While White1 was experimental too, a fair deal of the experiments didn't really land too well. But White2 not only lands all its experiments, but it expands upon the more eerie dark ambient parts of White1 as well. The first track, "HELL-O)))-WEEN" is the more conventional of the bunch, featuring the trademark droning basses and guitars, but once the second track comes around, things take a turn to the weird.
Both of the last two tracks have a very eerie alien ambiance to them, but they don't feel similar at all. "BassAliens" does indeed feel very alien, with a lot of "broken transmission" sounds and cold and the feeling that perhaps we are not alone in this universe, and then comes "Decay2 (Nihils' Maw)", finally featuring the evil vocals of what would be one of Sunn O)))'s most frequent collaborators, Attila Csihar; and the feeling that perhaps we are not alone in the afterlife, which isn't a hard atmosphere to evoke when you have Attila Csihar chanting from some of the oldest vedic texts available. Also akin to White1, the 2018 remastered version features an extra track that feels like an expanded version of "Decay2".
Radu gives this one 4 / 5 Kali Yugas
Bandcamp | Spotify
Radu: And thus, from humble beginnings and from sludgier and doomier sounds, taking major cues from Earth, Sunn O)))'s sound emerged. Already this early in their career they not only pioneered their brand of wall-of-guitars drone metal, but they also started dipping their toes into the more experimental sides of the drone metal spectrum they will come to embrace later on. We already encountered some future household collaborators, like Attila Csihar, and saw the formation of some related bands which would explore some of the sounds peripheral to Sunn O)))'s. But most of all, we saw them purvey a sonic doom.
Expect the second and third parts to come... soon...
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