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No beauty without danger - 90%

Bertilak, August 3rd, 2007

In this self-consciously technological world of downloads and iPods, where music is increasingly treated as a throwaway commodity to be consumed in bite-sized pieces when sitting on the bus and where entire music ‘collections’ exist only in the incorporeal ether of a computer’s hard drive, praise Woden for Southern Lord records. Not only do they resolutely favour bands who deal in track lengths where a single song would crash the average download, they also cheer the hearts of Luddites the world over by issuing their music in traditional formats, defiantly packaged with sumptuously extravagant and fetishistic detail. In a society where music has become both more ubiquitous and less important, Southern Lord seek to make the simple ownership of a physical record a thrilling event once more.

Their triple-vinyl edition of SunnO)))&Boris’ ‘Altar’ is a triumph even before any of the records make it to the turntable. Packaged in a lovingly intricate gatefold (with a spine almost a centimetre thick) that opens up into an integral, glued-in booklet with a hidden third sleeve, all adorned with meticulous line drawings, ‘Altar’ can truly be called a thing of beauty. The booklet, which juxtaposes full-page photos of brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine with murky subterranean caverns alongside portraits of the robed figures of the band members lurking amidst giant corn fields, delineates the counterbalanced themes of stunning beauty and claustrophobic menace that the music SunnO)))&Boris make repeatedly explores. The final piece of record-collector-geek heaven comes with the heavy slabs of coloured vinyl, the European distribution copies pressed in a viscerally organic shade of arterial red/brown. Innovative, artistic and thorough, the package consummately embodies the reverence with which great music should be treated.

But does the actual music created by this collision of SunnO)))&Boris (NOT a split, they repeatedly state) justify the elaborate presentation? Fortunately, the answer is ‘yes’, for just as its glorious solid appearance mocks the insubstantiality of storing music in a computer’s folder, so the thought and intent that has gone into the songs, and even the album’s running order, undermines the mere idea of downloading a record in fragments.

Key to this deliberate structure is the third vinyl, discreetly nestling in its ‘hidden’ sleeve. ‘Her Lips Were Wet with Venom (Satan Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas)’ is not a bonus afterthought but rather is explicitly stated in the liner notes to be a “prelude LP”, and consequently is placed first in the track listing on the back sleeve. SunnO)))&Boris are clear that it is with this 28-minute track, spread across two sides of vinyl, that the ‘Altar’ experience should start and for good reason, which becomes ever clearer as the album progresses.

The sensuous image conjured by ‘Her Lips Were Wet with Venom’ establishes the album’s focus on beauty and menace, and the track, opening with a crashing gong, plunges straight into an intense drone maelstrom that evolves into a sequence of slowly strummed low chords. A downtuned bass rumbles with deep, descending glissando, the overall effect supremely unhurried but also curiously relaxed. After a while, the gong returns to provide a slithering shimmer over the ongoing distortion, which begins to rise up into more definite feedback. This feedback then multiplies, creating a more controlled strand that coalesces into a high-toned and focused note, more musical than the previous distortion and reminiscent of the distinctive sound created by ‘LP’-era Head of David (maybe SunnO))) picked up something from touring with Justin Broadrick recently). Then, around the half-way mark, a clear, albeit heavily echoing, guitar appears, courtesy of Dylan Carlson from Earth, providing a slow, sparse, almost Country-and-Western-tinged bottleneck slide, mesmerising in its unexpected clarity against the overwhelming drone.

The parenthetical subtitle to the track - ‘Satan Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas’ - is a palindrome and, as Kim Thayil’s liner notes playfully point out, so is the track itself. Once the record is turned over, the developmental sequence that the first side followed is recreated in reverse (bottleneck guitar then musical feedback then distortion then gong then strummed chords). All that’s missing is the crash of a gong to finish but the distortion simply dries up at the close. Thus, the track is effectively an intellectual conceit that is played out musically.

With its thematic title, its intermeshing of the contributions from both band’s members and, above all, its carefully considered structure, ‘Her Lips Were Wet with Venom’ is indeed a perfect prelude to ‘Altar’ and, with half an hour having elapsed before reaching the album proper, it makes a clear statement about the level of commitment the project requires from the listener.

Lava is a substance almost too perfect for SunnO)))&Boris’ purposes, being slow moving and implacable, and comprised of equal parts beauty and danger. Hence ‘Etna’ is an entirely appropriate subject for the opening track. The high feedback and irregular waves of pulsing drone are natural successors to ‘Her Lips Were Wet with Venom’ but ‘Etna’ is immediately a more tense and threatening affair, the tone gradually rising and falling, and a cavernous bass just slightly out of sync with the guitars’ surges. Although still ominously slow there is a greater sense of purpose than on the sprawling prelude and this is intensified as cymbals begin to ghost in and out, building to a genuine drum passage that rolls about restlessly above the drone. The drum sounds as if it is perpetually on the verge of a full ‘rock out’ but it holds back, never establishing a fixed beat or sustained rhythm.

Finally, a gong heralds the emergence of a massive, crushing riff, although it is so slow and elongated that it’s more of a proto-riff, repeating at glacial pace with speaker-shaking intensity. As this deep, lumbering riff continues, wild, deafening feedback begins to crackle over the top and the drum finally finds a solid beat, albeit lower in the mix, until the track gradually builds to truly piercing feedback to end, a backdraft of silence in its wake.

As a justification for this collaboration, ‘Etna’ could hardly be any more effective, the drums and sinuously aggressive feedback of Boris spurring on the monolithic drone and suffocating intensity of SunnO))). However, ‘Altar’ never rests on its laurels and the structure of the album always seeks to move the listener on. Thus, having so clearly demonstrated the power of SunnO)))&Boris combined, ‘N.L.T.’ (revealed by the sleeve notes to stand for ‘No Lap Top’) dispenses with SunnO))) completely and features not one guitar.

Instead, just gong, cymbals and a bowed bass create a throbbing drone, the cymbal gusting over the top like bursts of static. Ultimately it fades to virtual silence with just a heavily processed gong producing intermittent waves of crystalline sound until the end. Far more simple and minimalist than its predecessors, ‘N.L.T.’ operates by the ‘less is more’ principle, its strength coming from its lack of change. It could perhaps be rather slight in isolation but after the intensity of ‘Etna’, and within the context of the album, it functions as a suitably compelling breathing space.

By this point, ‘Altar’ has produced nearly three-quarters of an hour of drone: powerful, pummelling, mesmerising. This makes ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’ an utter shock, which is something of an achievement for a song so, well, conventional. A hesitant, echoing, plucked guitar leads into a similarly echoing piano and a subtle, muted drum. They maintain their stately pace before Jesse Sykes’ vocals are introduced. Her husky, melancholy voice, virtually spoken and achingly fragile, is a wonderful coup de théâtre after the implacable walls of drone that have led up to this moment. ‘The Sinking Belle’ proceeds as a mournful, slow waltz, the repeated refrain of “You’re worried now/you’re worried now” encapsulating ‘Altar’s central conceit with the beauty of Sykes’ voice and the ominous sentiment. The slightly muffled echo that drapes the song, along with the descending chords, wonderfully evokes the sense of falling ever so slowly through water, until the track ends with just the starkly isolated piano gradually dying away.

In fashioning a song so distinct from each of their previous canons, SunnO)))&Boris were clearly risking a potentially negative reaction but ‘The Sinking Belle’ is flawless. Its traffic-stopping appearance at this point in the album’s running order underscores the deliberate intent of placing ‘Her Lips Were Wet with Venom’ first: without the monumental drone build-up, ‘The Sinking Belle’ would lack part (if only part) of its power. Never can the importance of listening to an album whole, in the order decided by the artist, have been so superbly showcased.

Side 5 of ‘Altar’ continues the variety, as it contains probably the most experimental pair of tracks, but it is also the point at which the quality dips slightly, most especially with ‘Akuma No Kuma’ (‘Evil Bear’), which features Joe Preston’s vocals put through a garbling vocoder along with a lurching drum and fizzy synthesizer effects. If anything the track suffers from being too self-consciously “experimental” and actually feels rather dated, a bit like being trapped in a ‘Space Invaders’ machine with Peter Frampton. A portentous trombone and a modern-jazz-style epileptic drum overindulging in fake endings don’t help any either. Things rally somewhat with ‘Fried Eagle Mind’, where a nervous, plucked guitar is built up gradually in fidgety layers, isolated notes spiking out almost at random over a subdued, pulsing bass. It is also the last of the trio of songs featuring vocals, with Wata’s whispered and somnambulant urgings to “Dream” adding to the sensation of floating stasis. The track begins to reintroduce elements of drone but overall the feeling is more ambient, as distorted static washes over the track towards the end, disrupting the hitherto smooth surface, until feedback gradually overwhelms it all before a sudden cut-off.

The deliberate structure of ‘Altar’, from drone through to conventional song then experimental, comes full circle to close with ‘Blood Swamp’, a massive drone piece also featuring Kim Thayil on guitar. From a looming fade-up, dank clanking noises, evoking the underground caverns of the album’s booklet, underpin high, alternating guitar notes, as the drone gradually begins to circle round, bass pulsing like a rapid heartbeat. The feedback builds powerfully as the notes become more urgent and the track gradually establishes itself on a double thrust of the deep, plunging bass (providing the menace) and the high, soaring feedback (providing the beauty). This oppositional movement generates a great deal of tension but is nonetheless cohesive. The track thence grows to an epic surge of enveloping feedback before finally dying away into the fade-out echo.

Both SunnO))) and Boris have, at various points in their careers, attracted hyperbole and pretension (to which this very review may, indeed, contribute) in any attempt to analyse, or even just describe, what it is they do. However, it is difficult to avoid the notion of ‘art’ being involved with these bands (SunnO))) especially), from the more obvious aspects of the sumptuous limited editions released by Southern Lord and the baroque line drawings gracing ‘Altar’s sleeve, to the less tangible art-rock overtones of the massive drones they deal in. Perhaps the very minimalism of drone metal provokes people to try to fill the void with words but, when the belief in music as an art seems to be under constant threat from treating music as a mere transitory commodity, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. When SunnO)))&Boris clearly put so much thought and intellectual effort into this release, it seems only fair to apply some in the appreciation of it.

The cover illustration of shadowy figures gathered around a writhing tree, its roots reaching out towards them, seems to depict something that is ancient but still alive and capable of inducing worship…rather like vinyl records and their junkies. To a smugly fast-moving and shamefully disposable world, the triple-vinyl ‘Altar’ issues a proud, uncompromising challenge: put me on a shelf, dust me everyday, wire up your most robust speakers and listen to me in my entirety. You know you have to.