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“Altar” is a great introduction to both Sunn0))) and Boris for those who’ve avoided them or remained ignorant and yet is somewhat atypical of the work released by the bands under their own names. It’s too tempting to think that drone is just drone – endless primordial sludge – and a good extended listen to both artists’ work, and this album in particular, shows just how much variety is possible.
Those familiar with the work of Sunn0))) and Boris know how terrifying their work can be, ranging from foundation-demolishing sub-bass to apocalyptic feedback storms. Rather than inflicting yet another aural assault, however, the collaborating artists have made “Altar” a more thoughtful and varied album than one might have expected from these dronemasters.
The opening track, “Etna” best typifies the fruits of this joint effort. As the title suggests, the piece is restless and volcanic, with occasional sprays of lava – courtesy of Wata’s howling guitar – lighting up the night sky. Nonetheless, there’s a sense of restraint here which typifies the entire album. The violence and catastrophe typically unleashed are held back. It’s like standing at the volcano’s edge and living to tell the tale.
Similarly self-controlled, “N.L.T.” is sparse and lonesome like a walk through a blackened forest, the aftermath of Etna’s eruption perhaps. This is the most haunting track on the album and it’s hard to believe that so many sounds can be created by double bass, bowed cymbals and gong.
Who would have dreamt that a conventional song, a balled no less, would appear on a Sunn0))) / Boris album? “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)”, sung by guest collaborator Jesse Sykes, is simply gorgeous, the highlight of the disc.
Diversity continues to dominate with the electronics and brass of “Akuma No Kuma”, combining moods of triumph and tragedy like a theme from an imaginary gladiator movie. The following “Fried Eagle Mind” is what its title says. Wata’s vocals feature here with looped echo-drenched guitar. It’s a somnambulant piece that again typifies the album’s emphasis on mood and texture.
Fittingly “Blood Swamp”, the final and longest track, returns to something like home base, displaying the individual character and personality of each band’s sound that we’ve come to recognise. Sunn’s trademark buzz, like a million angry wasps, supports beautifully Wata’s wayward feedback, wailing like a banshee above the desolate landscape.
I’ve played this disc many times (I’m listening to it as I type) and it’s the only Sunn0))) or Boris album I keep on my digital player. It’s wonderfully accessible and atmospheric with many varied flowing colours and textures. I simply can’t fault the music nor the cover and packaging which feature the usual high-quality Southern Lord presentation. “Altar”, in short, deserves nothing less than full marks.