Story of O)))

Sasha Frere-Jones on Sunn O)))

Sunn O))) performing at Brooklyn Steel on April 25, 2019. Photo: A.F. Cortes.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the French composer and artist Éliane Radigue published an essay called “Time Is of No Importance” in a collection called Spectres. In it, she writes: “Like plants, immobile but always growing, my music is never stable. It is ever changing. But the changes are so slight that they are almost imperceptible, and only become apparent after the fact.” The music of SUNN O))) lives in a similar balance, alive and immobile, exceptionally loud but not cruel.

For their show at Brooklyn Steel on April 25, the core duo of guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson were joined by Tim Midyett on bass, Tomas Nieuwehnhuizen on Moog Rogue, and Steve Moore on keyboards and trombone. Their new album, Life Metal (2019), represents their fullest sound in twenty years of work, which is not to say it’s their best. The scale for judging Sunn O)))’s work is not the same as evaluating other kinds of composition and performance. So much labor goes into the physical armature of their guitars (detuned to A or B) and various, carefully calibrated amplifiers that from the moment their music begins, it tells you as much about the mood of a Sunn O))) recording as the sequence of chords that follows the first moment. It’s like looking at the ocean or having that first sip of a Coke with ice—the duration will be meaningful, but the scope of the thing itself is there in the very first moment.

At Brooklyn Steel, the band followed a protocol that’s become more or less standard. White haze slowly fills the room, and, after a pause of about fifteen minutes, men in black monk robes take the stage. A chord is struck. Multiple guitars play the chord as well and, and that’s it. Nothing is visible beyond the clouds and there are no cues to indicate that anything else will happen beyond this one chord. The pitches change, and it takes several minutes to adjust to this implausibly loud and febrile presence. Minor variations in harmonic overtones beat like small waves lapping each other. Your eyes kinda jiggle. Whatever you’re standing on is humming at its own frequency. The word immersive gets used a lot with Sunn O))), which isn’t exactly wrong, in that the sea is big enough to subsume anything. The experience isn’t quite as claustrophobic as an immersion sounds because you’re witnessing a mutating, living thing, and it does not mean to harm you, or drown you.

Sunn O))) performing at Brooklyn Steel on April 25, 2019. Photo: A.F. Cortes.

Their set was a ninety-minute continuum drawn from Life Metal and an album that will come out later this year, Pyroclasts. The one exception was a composition called “Candlegoat” from 2005’s Black One. If it seems like this is something I could figure out in the heat of the moment, that is a deception. A high melody line in “Troubled Air” tipped me off, but other than that, I had no idea what was going on, and wasn’t much worried.

The air circulation system at Brooklyn Steel seems pretty robust, so the white fog continually filled the stage then receded into the vents, revealing our five friends in their robes. Sunn O))) have worked extensively with the singer Attila Csihar, who is not on the current tour. Without a singer to focus the eye and create a dramatic narrative, the music fell back on absolute essentials. A pleasant rolling, interlocking sequence took root. Anderson and O’Malley signaled the band with slow, deliberate moves. A picking arm would go up, and a hand would curl slightly. The elected chord retains its seat, continuing to ring. The hand comes down, not quickly, and then strums, and the notes all shift. It all happens more slowly than whatever you are imagining. O’Malley is fairly calm about it, while Anderson brings a more classically metal sense of theater to the process. He would throw his head back and offer his Les Paul guitar up to the sky and then bucket forward when the new chord hit. He stopped to drain a bottle of wine several times while the sound was vibrating, then handed the bottle to Moore and shifted to the next chord.

Lighting designer Anne Weckström was nothing short of remarkable, blending colors and staking out physical space with her compositions. Many of her color combinations evoked Samantha Keely Smith’s paintings that accompany Life Metal, turbid whorls of cream and earth tones that echo J. M. W. Turner, if one of his ships had run aground in a wet forest.

When the sustain and resonance was looping back on itself and feeling static, Weckström used the less hazy moments to fire off a dozen vertical white spots. Towards the end of the set, she hit a deep, hot magenta so notable that the people around me who hadn’t touched their phones all evening grabbed them to take a picture. One of them looked at his shots, sadly, after the show: “Couldn’t even sort of capture it.”