For a record its creators started work on in the belief it might be their swansong, this album doesn’t half seethe with energy, rippling with a vigour more typical of a group in their infancy rather than in decline.
The sessions that yielded Dear – whittled down from three albums’ worth to this set of 10 cuts, which still weighs in at more than an hour and occupies four sides of vinyl – also resulted in a renewed conviction that there are galaxies in the heavy music universe that Boris, a group currently celebrating their 25th year, have yet to fully explore.
And while Dear pulses with long-established characteristics such as bombast, abrupt shifts in EQ, extreme sonic juxtapositions and abysmal sustain, all of which underpin the Japanese trio’s tribal affiliation with Melvins, Sunn O))) and Sub Pop-era Earth, there are new stars being born here, new bridges to rock absurdity being built.
Perhaps the defining factors that single out the album from more recent predecessors such as Heavy Rocks and Präparat are an emphasis on the rudiments of rock music composition – the chord, the drum fill, the strained vocal – which elevates their importance almost above the music itself, and the adherence to a pace that, while nimble by the standards of Sunn O))), remains extraordinarily slow for the most part.
The vocal performances, which are significantly greater in number here than on previous releases, come mainly from guitar and bass player Takeshi Ohtani and drummer Atsuo Mizuno, with a brief, fragile contribution from guitarist Wata on the benumbed and deconstructed pop of Beyond, a second cousin of The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep) from Altar, the high-water mark collaboration with Sunn O))) from 2006.
The bulk of these songs emerge from a simmering broth of guitar so titanically mangled that the notes almost play second fiddle to the sizzle of the valves the signal is fed through, after it’s gone through a fuzz circuit so cranked it ought to come with a health warning.
Opening track DOWN -Domination of Waiting Noise- sets the (lack of) tempo from the off, with an immolated power-chord shaking the life out of the speakers for what feels like an eternity, the accompanying metallic rattle hinting at serious technical damage. On Kagero, as he does on DOWN and elsewhere on the album, Atsuo enters the fray with spasms of percussion and washes of orchestral gong as downtuned guitars throw control to the four winds and spiral chaotically into space.
Amid the haar of drone and bug-eyed metal excess, on Biotope Boris’s affinity for a peculiarly skewiff variant of shoegazing surfaces, bringing with it welcome contrast. The song unashamedly follows a template outlined by My Bloody Valentine but lathers on a degree of guitar noise that even Kevin Shields might have stopped short of.
The 12-minute Dystopia -Vanishing Point- starts from a queasy lullaby played out on melodica and accordion before Takeshi sings a trippy ballad over Space Echo-hazed guitar meanderings. Peace at last, you might think. But seven minutes in, the band unleash a berserk vision of power rock gilded by a caustically bonkers guitar solo that Prince would surely have approved of, the notes cocooned in a batter of fuzz before being plunged into foaming oil. It’s exhausting – which, you suspect, is largely the point.
After this, the title track sucks the air out of the room with a crunching, dismal riff topped by a malevolent vocal, fluttering drum fills doing little to puncture the gloom. Eventually the group begins to lurch as one amid crashing gong and sickening feedback, the overall effect being that of a purgative ritual, ridding the listener of any bloat brought on by the preceding hour of excess. Ideologically it’s at one with the sonic code the band perhaps inadvertently christened on the earlier sturm und drang of The Power, a paean to the riff that rivals the very best excursions into maxed-out heaviness.
Dear could have been the end of the trip. But a quarter of a century in, Boris remain alert at the controls as they pilot their craft into uncharted galaxies, boldly going where no group has gone before.
Manifold are the possible scenarios I foresee myself in at the age of 71.
Reading the complete works of James Ellroy in the cosy library of my thatch-roofed cottage overlooking Luskentyre beach, a glass of single malt whisky resting on a handmade occasional table by my side. Strolling up the 18th at the Old Course after a fine round under cobalt skies, a timid breeze whispering in off the North Sea. Adopting the lotus position and rocking to and fro in a straitjacket, cackling like a pantomime crone.
What I don’t predict is that I’ll be intoning the refrain “Bump the beaky” over a rhythm spelled out in whipcracks and a miasma of saturated guitar distortion manufactured by two long-haired, bearded dudes dressed entirely in black, the sole gatekeepers to an entirely new and diabolical level of subterranean frequencies.
This is but a snapshot of the milieu in which Scott Walker finds himself these days. The aforementioned “song”, Bull, is one of five tracks ranging in length from 8min 42sec to 11min 59sec that make up Soused, a collaboration with the US drone band Sunn O))) that arrived in the post this week. Easy listening it is not.
You might recall Walker from his spell in pop trio The Walker Brothers, none of whom bore that particular surname until dazzled by the bright lights of showbusiness. Or perhaps you know him from the first draft of his solo career, during which he brewed a gumbo of balladry, theatrical chanson and big-band standards.
In the 1960s and 1970s Walker committed to tape an astonishing number of essential songs, both covers and his own, including Lights Of Cincinnati, It’s Raining Today and Montague Terrace (In Blue).
Then Noel Scott Engel, to use his birth name, grew tired of the ephemeral pop universe and fell silent, publicly at least, until Climate Of Hunter, the 1984 album whose title hints at the restless questing that took root within and grew in the fertile soils of subsequent albums, from a sapling staring goggle-eyed at faraway clouds to its ultimate form of the towering tree that is Soused.
No matter how untelegraphed each stage of Walker’s recent career has been, however, few predicted his alliance with Sunn O))), a duo who essentially tune their guitars in the key of oblivion and plug into a wall of the loudest valve amps in the world.
The gospel according to Sunn O))) suggests: “Maximum volume yields maximum results.” So turn it up. It keeps you young.
Watch the trailer for Soused below.
Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.
“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald, with no little sourness.
Well, that was a crock of shit, wasn’t it? For irrefutable evidence look to Dylan Carlson, whose artistic resurrection in the 21st century after his late 1990s meltdown – chiefly fuelled by drug addiction and his infamy for lending Kurt Cobain the shotgun with which he killed himself – is nothing short of an epiphany.
Following the rebirth of a more expansive Earth in 2005 – Carlson being the sole survivor from their Sub Pop incarnation – with studio albums Hex (Or Printing In The Infernal Method), The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull and the Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light diptych, besides sundry live and mini albums, Carlson has become something approaching a guru to those for whom coruscating tone, dogged repetition and patient minimalism form the bedrock of all that is good and true.
Gold – surprisingly, Carlson’s debut soundtrack and one that accompanies the story of German pioneers in the Canadian west, a few hundred miles north of his base in Washington state – is a logical extension of the aforementioned Earth long-players besides his more recent voyages under the moniker he employs here, a guise in which he has indulged his curiosity for arcane English folklore and the music it has birthed, some predictable – Fairport Convention, Mr Fox – and others less so (PJ Harvey, The Kinks).
As any convert to Carlson’s post-millennial gospels might anticipate, within Gold there are few nods to the fuzz-saturated ecstasies of Earth mk1 that compelled Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley to form and then name Sunn O))) in astronomically abstract tribute to Carlson’s group (the Earth revolves around the Sun, or some such) and even christen a track after him (side three of The Grimmrobe Demos, subtitled A Mere Offering On The Altar Of The Puget Lord).
Instead, Gold unfolds as a series of 24 vignettes, a tribe of related yet disparate guitar figures – some cousins, others bearing more imprecise kinships – with sporadic percussion the sole accompaniment. The titles might be prosaic – Gold I, Gold II and so on – yet the questing therein is anything but. The heathen might condemn Gold as mere noodling, but spend a significant amount of time with its incantatory power and devotion is all but unavoidable.
Carlson picks out a languid riff here (Gold XI), lets his guitar and amp breathe with minimal intervention there (the atonal phantasm of Gold IV); at other times he engages bottleneck to conjure a sunburst of alarm (Gold VII), all the while remaining true to the goal that seems to propel him in his second act, his afterlife – to author a new genre, a medicinal, elemental blues with few virtuosic flourishes but bottomless levels of empathy. This is guitar playing as an investigation on an almost microbial level, magnifying and atomising degrees of the spectrum rarely acknowledged by the majority, let alone deemed worthy of anything other than fleeting attention.
The sonic prism through which Carlson’s inquiries are thrust only serves to add heft to their persuasiveness, principally comprising glutinous Uni-vibe, loops and envelope filters that bestow nuanced levels of nausea, narcosis and – yes – newfound hope where appropriate. One moment the mood is desiccated, trapped, fearful; the next, a rain has come and slammed the dust out of the air, decaying notes the only reminder of what was but is no longer. There is a point, it seems to say, in weathering the storm.
Trailing two further albums by Carlson due to emerge in 2014 – Primitive And Deadly, Earth’s first release since 2012, and Drcarlsonalbion’s crowdfunded Wonders From The House Of Albion – Gold marks the first surge in a flood of output from the godhead of drone, one that will likely be judged his annus mirabilis. No second acts in American lives? What a crock of bitter shit.
British followers of Stephen O’Malley, a man whose pursuit of artistic transcendence finds him hopping between continents almost more frequently than his band Sunn O))) change chords, this week get the opportunity to witness his elemental guitar inquiries in an uncommon context: as a solo artist.
Starting in Glasgow on Tuesday, the Paris-based musician, artist/designer and label boss winds his way from north to south in tandem with French occult rock trio Aluk Todolo, having not long flown home from a series of dates in Canada and the US, where he played as part of the avant-rock three-piece Nazoranai (with Keiji Haino and Oren Ambarchi, the latter also sparring with O’Malley at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville, Tennessee) and solo. Both disciplines, he explains down the line from his apartment near Pere Lachaise cemetery, are equally nourishing.
“I love playing music with others – that’s the pleasure of music for me. This is what I love to do. And that collaborative communication – the camaraderie around it, the vested risk you’re taking together – is exciting. When it goes well it’s really rewarding.
“When you’re playing solo you don’t have that. It’s entirely different. I suppose it’s different for a songwriter, someone who might be singing and who has more structure. I’m playing something that’s a 45-minute piece itself. I gotta admit I use it as a sort of self-analysis, my own music.” He laughs at the thought.
O’Malley’s palpable optimism about his first solo foray around the UK is closely bonded to his travelling companions. “The band I’m touring with, we’re pretty good friends. They’re a Paris-based band and we’ve played a lot of concerts together in France over the last number of years in this same configuration. We enjoy each other’s company and they’re a great band. They tour a lot in places like Romania and Poland but they’ve never had a chance to tour the UK. They’re killer.”
Earlier this year O’Malley visited Japan for a clutch of shows spanning solo performance, Nazoranai and a further collaboration with Ambarchi and Jim O’Rourke before flying to Australia to appear at Adelaide’s maiden Tectonics, a roving experimental music festival birthed by conductor Ilan Volkov in Iceland in 2013 – variants have also taken place in Israel and Glasgow while New York gets its first taste in May. O’Malley appeared at the inaugural Tectonics Glasgow a year ago, and both the Scottish and Australian experiences have had a profound effect on him. Above all, though, it is Volkov whose talent and innovation have affected him most.
“Ilan Volkov is brilliant. He’s our age, he’s in his mid-thirties …” I interrupt to say I’m 42. “So am I – so he’s younger than us! He’s a major conductor. He’s already been a resident conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for seven years. He’s a music lover and he’s brilliant – he can read scores instantly.
“He’s given the chance to put together a two-day programme and he turns it into a festival. And he’s choosing to put pieces in the programming [that take a lot of risks]. There was at least one Scottish composer who had a piece premiered at Tectonics [Martin Suckling, whose Release was performed by the BBC SSO]. What a great opportunity.
“He’s taken this festival and he’s put it in Glasgow, he’s done it in Tel Aviv – his hometown – and he’s also done it in Adelaide. I was so happy to be there because I got to listen to [Iannis] Xenakis pieces played live by this incredible Japanese piano player Aki Takahashi, who knew Xenakis and commissioned work from him, and she was playing this incredible programme – a Xenakis piece called Mists, a Giacinto Scelsi piece, a [Giuliano] d’Angiolini piece. I mean, you just don’t get the chance to hear this stuff live.
“And the audiences – music heads from out there, a lot of young people and fucking noise nerds, you know? Experimental music people like me, or like us. It’s a fortunate situation for the audience – you can hear all this on record and YouTube but you don’t hear it in a room played by the person who commissioned the piece, or, in Glasgow, hearing all the [Alvin] Lucier pieces being played, some of them by himself.”
That weekend in May 2013 was a frenzy of pathfinding, I tell O’Malley, with music that reached out into hitherto unexplored realms. “And that’s the spirit of the audience too,” he says. “I didn’t find them hifalutin’ or critical. There were critics there but it wasn’t a high-society thing, which can sometimes surround that kind of music.
“Also, it’s experimental music, so sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. With some of the performances I was involved in I wish we had the chance to do it again, because I know it could be better.
“I had several great experiences in Glasgow – with [Iancu] Dumitrescu [Hazard And Tectonics; Elan And Permanence] and the Lucier piece [Criss-Cross, alongside Ambarchi], with Ana Maria Avram [Metalstorm II]. Her piece was amazing, one of the favourite things I played.”
After bathing in the warm glow of the acoustically impeccable City Halls in Glasgow, O’Malley found the practicalities of playing the two-day Tectonics Adelaide an exercise in contrasts. “One of the days was basically in a giant tin shed – this is Australia’s oldest theatre and it’s historical but it’s a concrete building with a tin roof. ‘Yeah, it’s a theatre but … didn’t they trade cattle in here?'” O’Malley bursts into laughter. “Which is fine because everyone made the best of it. That was kind of an Australian twist to it, I guess. ‘Historical’ in a country so young is not the same as in Scotland, you know?”
Followers of Sunn O))) needn’t fret that O’Malley’s compulsive thirst for artistic alliance poses a threat to his and Greg Anderson’s groundbreaking excursions into new sonic galaxies. After Terrestrials, this year’s graceful, meditative collaboration with Ulver, what’s on the horizon?
“We started working on a record this year – we did a big, big session in London in January. I can’t talk about the specifics of it yet but it’s a really special project. It’s almost finished actually, it’s being mixed in the next couple of weeks. We’ll probably announce it before the summer. It’s really exciting – you’ll understand once you hear the announcement.” More laughter ensues.
Monoliths & Dimensions still blows me away, I say. It’s a comprehensively, consistently absorbing record. “There are things you get to participate in in your life as a musician or artist,” he responds carefully, “and after a few years go by it’s pretty astounding, thinking about what happened around that album, the music, the musicians, all the amazing tours we did, and how extreme the album is, and how it was received. Who knows where that’s gonna stand in the history of this kind of music?
“That album may actually have been a little inspired by my relationship with Ilan Volkov. We share a lot of information about composers and other things the other might not know about, mainly in my direction. He’s got a fucking astounding memory. But also Eyvind Kang did a lot of the arrangements on Monoliths & Dimensions, and he and Ilan have done some pretty cool projects. They did some concerts for the Iceland Tectonics, pieces written by Eyvind and Jessica Kenney – they’re husband and wife. And Jessica also is on Monoliths & Dimensions. She’s an incredible singer, she’s the leader of the choir on the second track [‘Big Church’] – that’s a really crazy piece of music.”
And by making it you’re throwing down a huge gauntlet to yourselves, I suggest. Where do you go from there? O’Malley laughs again. “You’ll see, believe me… We’re in a position where people will ask that question. And I was a little worried about this record with Ulver. It’s a great record but it’s not the next step in this mentality of more and more ‘out’, which you can’t do – you can’t constantly top yourself like that. The way you evolve is not like a marathon runner where you constantly improve quantifiably; it’s more abstract. But the album we’re working on is pretty great.”
Many people overlook or forget the fact that music is made from sound, which can itself be rewarding. There’s an acknowledgement of this across O’Malley’s multifarious projects, from Ensemble Pearl to KTL via Khanate, Gravetemple and beyond.
“I did an interview the other day,” he says, “where one of the questions was related to my relationship with metal. ‘Do you still find yourself part of the metal scene? Do you follow up on metal records?’ To be honest, I’ve never felt myself part of the metal scene. I’ve always felt part of my local scene, and the people in that scene. I’ve never felt like I was part of the black metal scene, even though I have a lot of friends in that scene and I like a lot of the music.
“I played in metal bands, or kind of metal bands, when I was younger, and it’s just a different way [of playing guitar]. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. I like metal as much as I like raga music, and I like raga music as much as Japanese flute music. I like musique concrete. I like sound. I like music that invigorates me and that has to do with the attitude of the music itself, not the virtuosity of the instrumentation.”
Before the next eruption from Mount Sunn O))), however, O’Malley is content to stand on his own two feet over the coming week in the UK. “I appreciate having the opportunity to do something solo and consider things in that way, and have an audience who are interested,” he says. “It’s a real gift.”
Stephen O’Malley and Aluk Todolo play Glasgow School of Art, April 8; Deaf Institute, Manchester, April 9, Gateshead Town Hall, April 10; St John on Bethnal Green Church, London, April 11; The Old Coroners Court & Morgue, Bristol, April 12; and Green Door Store, Brighton, April 13