March 01, 2007


Expanding the guest worker programme still further, here is reader Sebastian Roberts on Sunn0))):

    One thing that seems to have been missed so far is that SunnO))) are a tribute act - literally. By their own admission, the band began nine years ago as an Earth cover band and has deviated very little from their inspiration's template. Sulky fringe-dwellers of the hallowed Sub Pop-curated Seattle scene, Earth was Dylan Carson's revolving-door doomcore project, a sludgier, unsarcastic version of contemporaries (and doom godfathers) the Melvins. Earth's second album, "Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version", built the road on which so many now drive: asphyxiatingly slow, behemoth power chords soaked in overdriven sympathetic vibrations... less a record of music than a seismic event. At the time of "Earth 2's" release, it was largely reviled as a boring record by someone who's temporal perception had been damaged by too many downers. (Earth's MySpace bio seconds this - not as though that counts for anything.) A few, however, saw it as the logical extreme of post-Black Sabbath sludge-metal, e.g. the Melvins' down-tuned dirge "Boris." (Yes, the song after which Japanese dronecore trio & SunnO))) colleagues Boris named themselves.)

    But you've heard SunnO)), so you know what it sounds like. And I'm not writing just to give you the record-store-dweller nerd backstory. I'm just wondering how/if this changes your assessment of O'Malley & Anderson, given that they had seven years prep time before debuting their own act. They've had another nine since to perfect their ritualised performance aesthetic. Keep in mind that Metal was alive, well, and dynamic when "Earth 2" was unleashed in 1991: that same year, Metallica released their "Black Album" and Guns 'N' Roses put out their dual-album blockbuster "Use Your Illusion." (Actually, if Metal HAS a spectral remnant, it's probably the promise of "Chinese Democracy's" eventual release - but anyway...) There was no ghost yet to be resurrected from Metal. What Dylan Carson offered was a more pure, contemplative yet purpose-driven alternative.

    In this light, Carson becomes the musical equivalent of an ascetic monk surviving on the barest of essentials; SunnO))) become his apostles & champions, though they clutter the proceedings with needless accoutrements & ceremony. So let's wrap it up nicely and call those meddlesome and obnoxious elder statesmen of scene, the Melvins, the John-the-Baptists of Doom.

I've not heard Earth 2 but Earth were actually supporting Sunn0))) (a case of the apprentices paying dues to their masters) when I saw them last year in Islington. On that occasion at least, Sunn0))) blew Earth offstage; Earth sounded merely lugubrious, heavy in the sense of overweight and lumbering. (Actually, I remember that Earth reminded me of Blind Idiot God crossed with a vocal-less Sabbath, though far less compelling than that description implies.)

(UPDATE: since the above paragraph has already prompted one outraged email, I hasten to reinforce that these were my impressions based on Earth that one night only. My observations of that particular performance were not intended to offer a definitive judgement about Earth, nor to contradict Sebastian's remarks, except to the extent that, at that gig, Sunn0))) and Earth sounded very different.)

Turning now to Simon's response to my last post. I understood that the point of Simon's comparison between Sunn0))) and intelligent drum and bass was structural and sociological rather than musicological, and can concede its validity insofar as both 'opened up a whole new niche market of listeners' - but it seems to me that it's important to recognise that the very different ways in which Sunn0))) and intelligent drum and bass appealed to this new audience. 'In both cases,' Simon writes of SunnO))) and intelligent drum and bass, 'there’s a sublimation (or sublime-ation?) of the original music, a shedding of its coarse, rowdy, plebeian trappings and a distilling away of it generic impurities to reveal an essence.' This works perfectly well as a description of Sunn0))), but I think that only the first part applies to intelligent drum and bass (i.e. the shedding of the coarse, rowdy, plebeian trappings). The drive in intelligent drum and bass was famously towards more musicality (even the term 'drum and bass' as opposed to 'jungle' was part of this), added 'complexity', the aim to make the sound more closely resemble existing templates - a rhetoric of progression as the alibi for formal conservatism. Whereas the 'essence' that Sunn0))) scoured down to was less musical than Trad metal.

As regards KLF, well, Drummond may well be sincere and serious but if that's the case, he's cursed with looking the opposite. (The last thing I heard from Drummond was, funnily enough, this godawful metal group he'd convened for Iain Sinclair's London Orbital event at the Barbican.) Drummond for me is like Mclaren, forever tainted with all the worst aspects of art schools and Situationist theory, forever committed to translating everything into a scheme or scam over which they, of course, have mastery. KLF's situation was Baudrillardian, not Bataillean, as was summed up by the burning of a million pounds: the supposed act of transgression became immediately legible as yet another artworld-type publicity stunt, the promised access to an unmediated Real immediately became ensnared in all of the epistemological conundra of hyperreality (did it happen or not?) Drummond has the soul of an ad man, and not even burning a million pounds could change that. (In fact, it looked like just the sort of gesture an ad man would come up with.) It's not even that I dislike the KLF records - they had a brute appeal. But every gesture the KLF made seemed designed to make us aware of the Machiavellian calculating egos responsible for it. When they wore robes, we were never allowed to forget it was Drummond and Cauty who were wearing them. This, again, by contrast with Sunn0))), who seem to genuinely use the robes to anonymize themselves, so that the audience's attention is directed towards the physical force of the sound.

A Mess of Help and others wonder why it is has taken Simon and me so long to get around to Sunn0))). (Emily at Sexual Ambiguities goes so far as to claim that the turn to metal is a catastrophic sign that the game is up.) At this point, it is worth remembering one of the original prompts for this discussion, i.e. Simon's Pazz and Jop essay, which was precisely about the dearth of innovation in other sectors, the places where we'd normally look. And it seemed that the very moment that Simon paired metal and dubstep, the Vex'd/Distance mix appeared. In my own case though, it was Dominic's superbly evocative posts on Xasthur - who in many ways interest me more than Sunn0))) - which did most to pique my interest.

Speaking of which, Dominic has a fabulously detailed technical answer to the question I posed in respect of Xasthur: 'how much of Xasthur’s nihilism comes from the sound, and how much from the words - or more precisely (since the lyrics are all but inaudible), the titles?'

    A typical passage will feature separate guitar parts, panned to the far left and far right, playing in unison or consonantly in harmony but occasionally veering off in different directions so as to producing jarring collisions - these seem accidental at first, but are ratified by repetition so that the “wrongness” becomes structural, like the eldritch geometry of Lovecraft’s ancient architecture. One part will shift up a semitone, leaving the other anchored where it was but now drastically out of key, before returning to its original root. The resulting discords are not so much the “outside notes” of jazz as the “simultaneous false relations” of early Renaissance composers such as Carlo Gesualdo: deliberate tonal contradictions introduced into an otherwise conventional tonal system (most of Xasthur’s themes are in the harmonic minor scale) for expressive effect.

This is a stunning account of Xasthur's compositional weirdness, but it is still not clear why Xasthur's disordering of rock form should be expressive of negative affect. Dominic demonstrates very well how Xasthur's sound lies beyond the pleasure principle, but couldn't this be conceived of in terms of jouissance - the enjoyment of decomposition - rather than in terms of dejection? (Nihilism is a form of jouissance of course...)

Posted by mark at March 1, 2007 02:32 PM | TrackBack