Published Apr 12, 2019When drone-doom icons Sunn O))) started writing their new record, Life Metal, they couldn't help but note a bright, effervescent tone in their new music — one that contrasted significantly with the comparatively dismal qualities of much of their past work.
"When we started writing the record," notes co-founding member Greg Anderson in an interview with Exclaim!, "it kept having this more sort of brighter and powerful blinding light tone to it that was significantly different."
It's not a complete surprise; in the domain of sound, few have dug as deep into the bedrock of the sensory realm and excavated such power as Sunn O))). Built on the shoulders of its two founding members, Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, and with nearly every release bringing newfound collaborators into the mix, the band have been pushing the boundaries of what music is and what it is capable of doing for over 20 years now. Their continued evolution is evident throughout Life Metal, even from the start of the hypnotic opener "Between Sleipnir's Breaths," which reverberates with ethereal beauty.
"For me, Life Metal is the culmination of where we're all at in our lives and in our heads, and it's coming through in the music we're writing," explains Anderson. "A lot of things have changed in everyone's lives, and a lot of those experiences make up who we are and the music we are making now. So to me it always evolves and moves in different directions."
On Life Metal, that direction is toward something more hopeful.
"I think on all our records there has been a contrast in tone between light and dark. On [Monoliths & Dimensions], especially the opening track, it's just these super intense, bludgeoning riffs, massive walls of sound and distorted guitar, and then the record sort of comes out on the other side in the last song, 'Alice,' with a different feeling, and I think that provides a really interesting contrast. For me that was one of my favourite moments of the band, as far as our albums go, that sort of journey the riffs can take from start to finish. I think where it ended up is somewhere with this powerful brightness that we wanted to explore further, and to me that exploration happens within Life Metal," says Anderson.
But as much as Life Metal is a vital and fresh departure in some ways, it's undoubtedly a Sunn O))) record. The monumental and glacially paced drone of the band's guitars constitute a dense territory of sound for the listener to traverse.
"I think one of the key components that not everyone has is patience, and letting notes evolve and breathe naturally. For a lot of people, it's not easy to understand or connect with. I mean, that pace is extremely slow, and a lot of people [have this] perception that it's very simple and easy to play because it's slow — but actually, I think it's much harder to play slow music than fast, because with faster music, you have a rhythm going and a pace that is familiar and comfortable. With slow music, it takes longer to get to that comfortable place where it's coming out of you in a natural way."
Anderson's words reflect one of the key attributes of Sunn O)))'s philosophy, and which has undoubtedly elevated the band to the status of icons within the experimental music scene: treating sound much like a living thing, rather than simply a means to an end. That underlying spirit is plainly felt throughout Life Metal, sounding less like the emissions of instruments and more the work of cosmic forces, beautiful and terrifying. This is perhaps due in part to the wholly analogue production of the album — and at the hands of legendary producer like Steve Albini, greatness was almost a foregone conclusion.
"The recording session with Steve Albini was actually a 20th anniversary gift to ourselves. [We thought], 'We made it 20 years, let's do something really special, let's celebrate by recording an album with an absolute hero of ours,'" Anderson says, his admiration of Albini's work audible in his tone. "One thing we really loved about Albini's recordings was that they were these really raw and intimate captures of the band as they were. You felt like you were in the room, with the band listening to them, seeing them sweat and breathe. That's something I think has really kind of been lost in a lot of recordings and studios."
The 20 years that Sunn O))) have had to flourish and explore their craft is evident in the craft of Life Metal. It displays the multifaceted nature of life in its ebb and flow between joy and despair, light and dark, and is a powerful waypoint along the band's extensive lifespan.
"It's really a celebration that we're still alive and have survived as a band. And that's no easy achievement; I've been in many bands over the years that of course didn't last. Most bands' lifespans are pretty short, actually. So, the fact that we have been able to sustain for over 20 years as a group, and really a friendship, between Stephen and me, is something to celebrate. That's an important part of what the album means to me."
Life Metal is out April 19 courtesy of Southern Lord Records.