Five years after their last visit, the world’s heaviest band, Seattle’s Sunn O))), docked in Manchester for the final performance in the Manchester International Festival’s Dark Matter series of eight events designed to “destroy your boundaries”. On the night, “destroy your hearing” would be every bit as appropriate.
The Mary Anne Hobbs-curated DJ set which preceded each of the Dark Matter performances had already ramped up to about 100Db and lurking in the mist to the rear of the stage were Sunn O)))’s battalion of amps and speakers, looking like a Mancunian terracotta army, or an array of the monoliths that taught the apes how to kill each other in 2001 – A Space Odyssey. Outside, MIF volunteers were practically pleading with audience members to take ear plugs out of a jar.
It is possible to make too much of Sunn O)))’s torturous sound levels but let’s face it they are an integral part of their work and shows, along with incredibly low guitar and keyboard sounds, immense distortions, massive feedback, no sense at all of rhythm, no semblance whatsoever of melody and 1950’s London pea-souper fog engulfing the stage.
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The first ten minutes of the set are dominated by a thunderously deep vocal assault from Attila Csihar, Sunn O)))’s regular touring “singer” (presumably it was him), who is virtually indistinguishable in the gloom although the traditional band members’ robes are evident. It is the nearest thing your average Joe will ever hear to satanic rites and might be the soundtrack to a new Exorcist or Omen franchise. If he isn’t using a vocoder or other such device his larynx must be made of asbestos.
There then follows one of those classic moments that can only happen at a British rock concert. Just as the aptly-named Attila’s tirade fades away, and with perfect timing that would shame a legion of alternative comedians, someone shouts out “get on with it”! It brings the house down though it’s highly unlikely Sunn O))) would have been amused. It’s probably the most Manc comment that’s been made since “Judas”.
Then the droning starts; it builds and builds until the column your reviewer is leaning against starts to shake. Offered a seat by someone who’s wisely opted to exit while he can, he’s astonished to find that even the soft fabric in the lounge seat is vibrating, something that Professor Brian Cox himself might find hard to explain. That same droning note persists unrelentingly for what seems an eternity. You can’t shake off a feeling that, like after entering Royston Vasey, “you’ll never leave”.
The audience is transfixed. It is almost impossible to avoid looking at the stage even though there’s little to see, but where Attila’s arms are now fully horizontally extended, cross-like. In the backlit gloom the band and their equipment take on the appearance of the aliens coming down the ramp in Close Encounters and up on the balcony, an audience member holds his hand out making little signs with his fingers like François Truffaut. It would be no great surprise to hear the five tones, except that you couldn’t possibly hear them.
As the set progresses the omnipotent droning is joined by a humming noise that makes the hairs on your arms stand as if from electrical static and, surprisingly, the first hints of “music” – little snatches of vocalisations in the form of intergalactic chat in the hiss of space, followed by laughter and then demonic voices. And even short collections of notes that approximate to a tune. The first recognisable ‘traditional’ guitar note is heard at 33 minutes. But it’s so fleeting; these gatecrashers are gone in seconds and might only be in the imagination of a befuddled brain that is trying to cope with the extraordinary.
As the show begins to reach its climax the volume and atmosphere is overwhelming and such that strange images and recollections dart unwelcomed into the mind. Wasn’t it in a sequel to The Day of the Triffids that the aliens killed humans by herding them into a cathedral and then subjecting them to intolerable noise? Has anyone ever died at a Sunn O))) gig?
Unfortunately, that remains an open question as the late start and the mundane need to use public transport necessitated a departure some 15 minutes before the end of the show. It is highly unlikely that much changed in that final period. Sunn O))) isn’t suddenly going to start covering Take That, or Steps. You get what’s on the tin.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to mock this extreme variety of drone/experimental metal music but anyone who thinks it is (a) easy to make or (b) easy to play live is deluding themselves. While mastery of the amp is as important as mastery of an instrument in this particular genre it has as much value as a piece of art as does any other form of music. You can’t create a vision of Hell with five minute’s practice.
It is to the credit of the MIF organisers and the respective venues that they were able to host at this year’s festival, along with Sunn O))), the likes of Holly Herndon, Paleman, Clark, Colin Stetson and The Haxan Cloak; all of them challenging accepted norms and “destroying boundaries”.