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Sunn-O)))/Boris - Altar Review

by Mark Hensch

What a match made in Heaven! Of all the bands that occupy the universe, few worship at the Altar of the heavy as fervently as America's Sunn-O))) and Japan's Boris. The former is a magical coven of low-end, ritualistic droning menace; the latter is a shape-shifting metal chameleon, a band as at home with ambient soundscapes as it is fiery, scuzzed-out rock. When the two announced their intention of recording an album together back in 2006, few people could expect the end results. Altar is a beautiful, surreal, and esoteric work of art, every bit as good in its total sum as its various parts would make it look on paper.

But all that is beside the point. The question on everyone's lips is whether or not a pairing of these bands (as thematically similar as they are) would actually work. The answer is a resounding yes, and Altar is collaboration so seamless that the phrase "split-album" is rendered wholly null-and-void. As if a tandem of Sunn-O))) and Boris weren't enough, Altar is like a congregation of the world's foremost drone/noise/doom maestros. Members of Soundgarden, High on Fire, the Melvins, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, and (most notably) the legendary Earth all appear, their contributions every bit as interesting and fluid as those offered by the sign-post bands.

I was going to begin describing the first song, but with this work one doesn't really hear songs---"movements" is probably a more fitting term. The first is gradually-incendiary "Etna," named after the (supposedly) dormant volcano which erupted famously in ancient times and turned the rampaging Carthaginians away from Italy. The piece itself works just like, patiently building into a pyrotechnic display of jaw-dropping splendor. Haunting tectonic rumbles occur in the subterranea of one's psyche, all while thundering eruptions of manic skins work gradually increase in the background. Out of this firestorm of sound there emerges ghostly rays of fiery guitars, their piercing clarity making the song that much stronger.

"N.L.T." is a short interlude of absurdly grim cello-like notes and twinkling cymbals/light percussive effects. It is jarring and freaky, a true work of unpleasant paranoia. "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)" is easily the album's emotionally-crushing valley, a wistful jam so disarming it will damn near cripple its shocked listeners. Quiet, ethereal washes of sound drift arm-in-arm with lonely piano keys, all while a steady, folksy drum beat provides a steady backbone for the song. The whispering, delicate vocals of Jesse Sykes really make a lasting impression, and are the proverbial icing on the cake. The lady's bare vulnerability fuses with the minimal, clean-sounding ambience, making a song that has all the quality of a pleasant dream tinged by regret, sadness, loss, and hopelessness.

The more upbeat "Akuma No Kuma" thankfully offsets this, and should appeal to the prog-lovers of the 1970's. The song is fronted by the legendary Joe Preston of Melvins, High on Fire, Thrones, and Earth fame, and the man absolutely drenches his incantations in futuristic, mechanical fuzz. In a smooth trick, the bands use this unique vocal technique as an extra instrument, letting Preston's delightfully-garbled gibberish ebb-and-flow amidst serene pools of Pink-Floydian exploration. It all sounds like Boris flying straight through outer-space and into a giant star, exploding it into ever-dimming, radiant sparks. "Fried Eagle Mind" is an acid-laced ballad so transparent and insubstantial that it is heavier in quiet than it could ever hope to be in violent noise. While the song always maintains a glassy, ominous tone, a gradual increase of abrasive noise soon emerges to flicker amidst the unease chaotically. Closing things is the epic "Blood Swamp," Altar's sprawling mega-piece. Dripping liquids deep in a cavern slowly unveil deep, moody, formless chords, the likes of which briefly flare and then fade. Improvised guitars bang endlessly in the background, their open-ended magnitude like vital questions left glaringly unanswered. It all makes for a glorious end to the album, a sort of bubbling free-form guitar solo blatantly slowed to agonizingly relaxed crawls.

This is the kind of rare album that is both novel and wildly fun at the same time. So talented are Boris and Sunn-O))) at mixing-and-matching with one another that you'd swear it was just one overall supergroup rather than a pairing of two separate and individual bands. Either way, Altar is a real treat for fans of the doom/drone/stoner metal movements, and with such a stellar cast of said genre's living legends, it doesn't get much better than this. This is a call to worship---bow to Altar now.

Sunn-O))) and Boris' Altar
1. Etna
2. N.L.T.
3. The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)
4. Akuma No Kuma
5. Fried Eagle Mind
6. Blood Swamp

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Sunn-O)))/Boris - Altar

Rating:10.00 out of 10.00

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