I recently invited you to read a thousand-page novel without much in the way of sentences, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point you at a 69-minute drone-metal album that largely lacks melody and rhythm. I refer to Life Metal, a 2019 release from Sunn O))). Because in 2020 we really ought to be sharing good things with each other, and this is a good thing; the new music I’ve enjoyed most this year.
Lots of people probably don’t think they’d like drone metal, just from the name. I think they might want to think again. This is extremely serious music and works both as background and for careful listening. I like the tones and the chords and the treatments, but what I like most is that the best of this kind of music, including this album, is full of serenity.
Life Metal lives in a tradition that’s almost exactly fifty years old, measuring from the release in February 1970 of Black Sabbath’s debut album Black Sabbath. Its opening song (also Black Sabbath), after 37 seconds of church bells in a thunderstorm, opens with a huge, rumbling, low-string tritone riff, and that moment is generally considered to mark the birth of heavy metal. This music is like that, boiled down to the purest essence.
Enough general rambling about metal, because I had great fun with an ongoing piece on the subject a couple of years ago; it includes groovy pix.
The music · It sounds like other Sunn O))) music only, well, brighter. (Which isn’t actually bright since this music is supposed to be dark.) A little research reveals that Anderson and O’Malley, Sunn O)))’s leaders, have been enjoying raising young families and feeling generally upbeat about things. Thus the name Life Metal, obvious “Death Metal” counterpoint and apparently a bit of a running joke here and there in the metal community.
A few words for those who are new to the genre: It’s a slow-shifting landscape of huge low-pitched high-distortion electric guitar chords, with occasional interjections of voice, other instruments, and rare (but very dramatic) high-note sequences. I personally find the melodious downtuned guitar roar immensely pleasing, and enjoy the vast sense of space; there’s no hurry anywhere and the riffs are lingered over endlessly for their own sake. It’s designed to be played absurdly, crushingly loud so it’s a whole-body experience.
Life Metal seasons the guitar noise with occasional pipe-organ and an actual song that’s sung not shrieked, lyrics translated from ancient Aztec verse.
The sound · Here’s where it gets special. For this outing the band teamed up with legendary producer Steve Albini and used entirely analogue technology, which you can experience end-to-end if you buy the vinyl version, which I did of course.
When I listen to it in the car or the boat/office, it sounds good and I enjoy it. But a couple of times I’ve pulled up a chair in front of the big speakers and put Life Metal on the record player, turned it up pretty far and… wow.
I don’t know what Albini did, but suddenly the whole room was full of gigantic musical serpents dancing slow, scales glowing blackly, rays of dark musical fire radiating in every direction. The music felt endless in scope and width and height and length and volume. Remarkable music, remarkably performed, remarkably produced, remarkably delivered; so intense.
No, I wasn’t doing any drugs! But if I’d had any I’d have been tempted.