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Altar is an incredible collaboration between two drone legends; Sunn O))), the band who kick started the whole drone-doom movement, and Boris, a band well known for their distinct Psychedelic/Noise/Drone fusions. This album features some of the greatest drone material I have heard to date, and that’s saying a lot. Every song, while falling under the broad genre of doom-drone, is completely different from the last, for example; Etna, the song which opens Altar is a typical drone song, incorporating down tuned, repetitive riffs which is followed by N.L.T. an rough ambient masterpiece, which is void of instruments, replacing them with a rusty wind effect over a slight breeze, you’ve got to hear it to understand.
One thing that I noticed right away was that Sunn O))) and Boris have slightly modified the songs to something you wouldn’t normally expect on a doom-drone album, Etna defiantly stands out, in the heart of the song fast, technical drums slowly enter the song, and while maintaining the drone sound the drums really give it a whole lot of effect and direction. But it’s not only Etna that experiments with drone-doom. The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep), using clean played guitars in a repetitive style, reminds me of Earth, especially the Thrones and Dominions album. They’ve also added a nice, repetitive keyboard melody, which tremendously compliments the vocals and the guitar..
Sunn O))) and Boris worked with a number of people on this album, a lot in fact, considering there is only six tracks. The highlight, of course, is Jesse Skyes guest vocals on ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’, every review I’ve read has stressed how incredible this song is and I don’t disagree, it’s truly a highlight of the album. Other guest appearances include Kim Thayi (Soundgarden), who plays guitar on the last track of Altar, Blood Swamp, and does an awesome job at it, throwing drone-like solos and melodies over the heavy guitar feedback running throughout the entire song. Joe Preston, one of the masterminds behind drone-doom gods, Earth, does vocals for ‘Akuma No Kuma’, again, defiantly something you wouldn’t expect on a Sunn O))) and Boris compilation, computed voices, screaming keyboard melodies, awesome drumming and there’s even brass instruments played throughout the song, the first drone album I’ve heard with trumpets.
Defiantly a must have album for any Sunn O))), Boris or drone-doom fan. You’ll be guaranteed an original, thought-out masterpiece. I can’t explain how amazing this is, it’s defiantly a breakthrough in the doom-drone genre. Go out and buy this now.
3 LP's of nothing but beautiful, beautiful drone doom metal. And just as Kim Thayil wrote on the liner notes, there is nothing rock about this album.
If you have the vinyl version you'll find that there is a "hidden" third vinyl, which is actually meant to be a prelude to the rest of the album. I assume it's the third one because you don't find this track (both sides are one track) on the normal CD release. But nonetheless it sets the mood right away. You hear a gong and the guitars go full blast into one big, long chord. After a good amount of Wata's drone solo and feedback, about 13 minutes in, one of the guitars starts to sound like something from Earth's Hex or Hibernaculum albums (non-distorted drone is the best way I can put it) while the other continues to drone on no different than before.
After that (if you are lucky enough to have that track) comes Etna. Talk about an album opener. Sounds like sunn0))) and Boris doing their own things, but the result is an amazing track neither group would have produced on their own. All I have to say about N.L.T. is that it's double bass and drums only, and the double bass is so low that it almost blew out my old crap Bose speakers.
The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep) is where I think this album truly shines through. It's not doom metal like the other tracks are. Jesse Sykes came in to do the vocals on this one. I have to say her voice works well with this track. This is the only other track where the guitars sound like something out of Hex or Hibernaculum. The drums are soft and distant sounding, but they never lose that drone feel. Stephen O'Malley does the piano on this one. Mindblowing track.
Akuma no Kuma is the least interesting of the songs. Joe Preston does the vocals through a vocoder on this one which I thought was kind of cool, but I still don't understand why it wasn't something any of the guys from sunn or Boris couldn't do.
Fried Eagle Mind is a pretty cool drone track. Wata does the vocals as well as "space guitar" on this one. Most of the song is just made up of both of those: a very distant sounding guitar and Wata's slow vocals. About 6 minutes in we get some massive feedback, just as far away sounding as Wata's guitar.
Blood Swamp is a great track, and the most sunn-like of all of them in that it gives off that creepy, melancholy kind of feeling. But the two bands together have so many guitars to work with that they really use the potential of each guitars. It sounds like two guitars are doing sunn-esque droning tuned super-low, and another two guitars are playing some sort of insane feedback solo.
I wish I could put how this album sounds into words better, but my god if everyone doesn't deserve to hear this.
These guys and gal knew that their fans and foes alike were expecting them to produce one very long chunk of super-heavy avantgarde art metal so instead they offer a very welcome listener-friendly stoner metal album with varied moods and ambience, and different approaches to creating music. Incidentally the idea of Boris and Sunn0))) collaborating on a record may have come about indirectly because of an April Fool's joke perpetrated by Aquarius Records on its website www.aquariusrecords.org in 2005 in which the San Francisco record shop claimed that the two bands plus Earth had released a single consisting of one long guitar chord drone of which only one copy would be made and would be sold to the highest bidder on eBay. (I confess I saw the joke a couple of days after 1 April 2005 and was dumb enough even to ask someone if he was going to bid for it!)
If you were one of those expecting the art metal slab, the closest you will come to it is the hellishly droning opener "Etna" which starts off with Atsuo's hyperactive drumming amid a long drone and then distinguishes itself further with a juicy rump steak guitar riff joined by Wata's yowling lead guitar. This is a very teasing intro which is then swept away by the percussion and bass dronescape piece "N.L.T." which is quite unexpected and which has a very still, contemplative air. The next track is also a surprise: "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)" is a quiet lullaby with lyrics written and sung by alternative country music singer Jesse Sykes of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter who sings in a more or less natural voice that seems very warm and sincere, quite a contrast with previous singers for Sunn0))) who have often sounded remote and whose voices have usually been distorted or which operate at the extreme end of their ranges. Piano drifts by in a sort of wavering haze and the guitar work is gentle and bluesy with slight echo and a slide guitar kind of feel that adds a hint of a depressive, desolate mood to this ballad. Who'd have thought that a Boris / Sunn0))) collaboration might have resulted in something close to the spirit of Canadian post-rock ensembles Godspeed You Black Emperor or Do Make Say Think?
"Akuma No Kuma" on the other hand is a more triumphalist stoner soundscape with Sunn0))) and various guests on synths, a solemn trombone workout by Steve Moore and vocoder-treated vocals by Joe Preston. Absolutely NO guitars feature here! - yet the track is quite at home within the Sunn0))) repertoire and weighs just as much as the more strings-laden music in the heavyweight music category.
"Fried Eagle Mind" is an interesting experiment in creating a dreamscape. I think the guitar notes move rather fast for listeners to really tune into the drone and the tones could have been merged more into the droney ambience and synth-generated effects. Halfway through the track there is a gravelly distorted guitar that develops and becomes a hydra-headed virus that fries the dreamer's mind, which brings us to "Bloodswamp" which can be interpreted as a follow-on. This is a very ominous piece suggesting the multiplication of viruses in the dreamer's mind and the accompanying nightmares that the dreamer experiences. Guest musician on this track is ex-Soundgarden axe-grinder Kim Thayil though his contribution seems very submerged. There's only one outcome in the absence of effective medical treatment against the infection so the track continues to build, up and up and up until ... well, to quote Shakespeare, the rest is silence.
Actually, not quite silence yet ... there's still the small matter of the bonus CD called "Altar - Prelude - SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas" (an in-joke relating to Soundgarden, I think) with the one track "Her Lips Were Wet With Venom" which is a 28-minute dronescape monster featuring cowboy blues metal guitar solos from Dylan Carlson of Earth. This is more the looong concrete-sized slab of art metal drone many people are probably expecting. It's also a very hypnotic psychedelic piece with many special effects and noisy textures going on. Wata's guitar wails appear at some point during the track so I think the guitarists took it in turns to play solos though Carlson does the most soloing. Probably the track could have done with some further editing, remixing or manipulation of the drone in the latter part of the track as it is a very long space-jam. Somewhere in that track, Boris, Sunn0))) and Dylan Carlson probably fulfilled all the necessary requirements for that fictitious single of the heavy E chord drone.
Boris and Sunn0))) understood that it wasn't enough just for the two of them to stand in the studio together crowded by their amplifiers and simply pool their styles and methods; they have used the collaboration as a base to jump off into areas they had not previously explored and have brought in other collaborators including Adrienne Davies (Earth), sometime Sunn0))) touring companion TOS Nieuwenhuizen and Joe Preston to help them realise their ambitions. Apart from the bonus CD there is not that much drone going on and the record is surprisingly varied with a lot of ambient and mood music.
I'll admit it: I'm not much of a drone fan, though if I do have to listen to drone, it will come from one of four bands , and hey, since two of them are working together on this album (the other two being Earth and the odd Melvins drony track), I thought I'd give it a try.
I can say one thing: I am NOT disappointed. Though this isn't quite as monolithic as, say, Absolutego, the opening tracks are heavy as fuck, mixing the heavyness only Boris could produce with some nice Sunn melodic riffs. The production is amazing, there is so much texture to the sound, you almost feel like you're drowning in a puddle of weird rough viscous stuff.
I have to admit, though... my favorite track here is probably the Sinking Belle. It's a ballad, an almost stupidly simple ballad (or at least that's the way it seems at first), but it's just imbued with so much feeling... it gets me every time I listen to it. Jesse Sykes does a brilliant job on vocals here, a great departure from what you get on most albums from either band. This song is just an awesome example of how to build a song into more than just a collection of riffs. It's an indivisible aesthetic unit, and it makes complete sense once it reaches completion.
I can't say I much like the corny vocal distortion on the next track, Akuma no Kuma, but it's not annoying enough to make it a bad song at all (it even features some epic brass lines, and I'm a sucker for those, when done as nicely as they are here). As a matter of fact, once you get used to the vocals, you just don't notice their cornyness.
Though Fried Eagle Mind has some interesting things going for it, it just didn't make me phase out and forget everything else that was going on except the song. I dunno why... with a friend of mine who listened to this the same day I did, it was the exact opposite. He was out there during the whole track, while I actually thought it was sort of boring until... the end part came through. And the end is just amazing so I guess it's worth the wait. It gave me about the same feeling as the begginning of Det Som Engang Var (the song) does... walking through a deserted road in the middle of a cold, dark, dream forest. (OK, so the Kittelsen image influenced me just a bit). It leads the listener very well into the ominous start of Blood Swamp, which rounds off the album with 14 minutes of darkening dreamscape. Just listen to it. I won't try and put it to words.
Try this out, even if you're not a drone fan. Half the tracks aren't even drone, and those that are, are pretty accessible and masterful, as could be expected by 2 bands that are hailed by many as masters of Drone.
The idea of a Boris and Sunn O))) collaboration is definetly something that will polarize people. A lot of people will be disgusted at the very thought.. Two terrible bands doing one inaccessible, meaningless slab of noise as 'art'. However, weird drone fans (like me) have been sporting massive boners ever since it got announced. The result, however, isn't as extreme as I expected, with Boris and Sunn O))) branching out of their usual sounds to produce a massively psychedlic and surprisingly accessible stoner drone album.
Still, hardcore drone fans will still find some stuff to satisfy them here. 'Etna' is hardly as out there as Sunn's Black One effort, but it's a solid, super heavy drone tune with some crushing riffing and some stoned-as-hell style drumming, while N.L.T is some sub bass ambience, which could even appeal to those who hate ambience. Blood Swamp is another epic drone song, possibly the most droney, and definetly the hugest song on here, with waves of cosmic noise crushing down onto you. It should have Sunn fans salivating. These songs weren't amazing for me, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.
However, it's unlikely that those are the songs that will get the most attention. The Sinking Belle is a very gentle, droney ballad with melodic female vocals (Someone else is guesting, I don't know who though.) Gentle delayed guitars and lap steel (maybe?) float around in the mix, with the vocals and the piano drifting throughout the mix. While it is a ballad, it's by far the heaviest song on here. Completely desolate and depressing, and also completely awesome. Akuma no Kuma sounds like a version of Iron Man slowed down by 400%, and with an extremely stonery feel to it. Seriously, this is the most stoned track I've ever had the pleasure of listening too, whether it's the filtered vocals, the synths cooking away, the occaisonal use of a gong, or the steady bass roar hanging around in the mix. Stoner Ambient.. I could just imagine a massive group of ambient dudes getting super stoned and basing entire albums of this one song. As I'm sure you can imagine, it's a cool song.
This album is not at all what I expected from Boris and Sunn, and that's a good thing. The drone stuff is pretty well done, though both bands have done it better by themselves, but the middle two tunes are both completely unique and totally awesome. I'm giving it 83%.. Because while I can imagine Sinking Bell and Akuna no Kuma in my playlist for a long, long time, I can see myself listening to the other 4 tracks all that much. Still, I would say this is a must for all you drone fans. Download, then buy when it comes out. SImple!