sunn O))) live review

This is a review of the Sunn O))) gig which took place at Coalition in Brighton in June 2012.

It’s minutes before Sunn are due to take the stage, and the anticipation in the room is so thick you could cut it with some kind of spiky ceremonial dagger.

It’s a different kind of anticipation to the usual pre-gig excitement. Sure, they’re a semi-legendary (in certain circles) art/doom/metal band playing Brighton for the first time. But there’s something else here. The unmistakeable stench of fear.

Okay, perhaps nervousness is more accurate. Certain gig goers keep looking at the huge speakers dotted around the walls and ceiling of the sea-front club venue. They make distracted conversation with their friends about the suspected volume of Sunn’s “quadraphonic surround sound” and imagine organ rearrangements and eardrum explosions. I know what they’re thinking because I’m also thinking it myself: what have we let ourselves in for?

The first 30 minutes or so is revelatory. The sound is immense, and comes at all angles. And as well as heard, it is felt. An ordinary gig becomes a multi-sensory overload chamber where music can be appreciated not merely for its impact on the eardrums and mind but for the interesting way it vibrates the various tiny particles that make up the human body.

Any fears of dullness are immediately allayed. Though they play an incredibly slow form of doom metal, such is the craftsmanship in the sound deployed – all harmonic overtones and feedback and Marshall stacks – that every second of the experience is fascinating. Each moment of this burning, screeching, throbbing sound is like a fractal, which, when confronted head on in consciousness, only smiles devilishly and steps back to reveal a new panorama of complexity.

The hallucinogenic nature of the experience is by the appearance of the venue, with its low stone arches and multi-level areas, and that of the band, who are naturally obscured by hooded robes and dry ice as they wrestle with invisible sonic forces. It’s what you might witness if you awoke from a drugged drink to find yourself the unwitting participant in an arcane ritual to invoke some long-forgotten god.

This sense of the uncanny takes a lurch into the slightly hammy with the introduction of ex-Mayhem man Attila Csihar’s vocals halfway through. Not sure what he’s saying, something about lightning, but he goes on about it for a long time, while the others noodle around making spooky noises. His slowly spoken incantations eventually speed up into an invigorating guttural glossolalia, and by the time he’s booming out some admittedly pretty bad-ass evil-overlord style laughter (“mwah-ha-ha-HAAAAA!”) we’re back in business.

What they play I have no idea. Maybe something off their most recent record, a re-release of 2000 album ØØ Void on Southern Lord, or perhaps something from the classic Monoliths and Dimensions. That they play is what matters, and for one and a half hours as well. By the end I have to admit I’m fading a little – main man Stephen O’Malley has likened Sunn performances to a “non macho” endurance challenge – but afterwards feel euphoric. Like the compulsive marathon runner, I’m already anticipating my next ‘experience’.