Sunn-O))) - Black One Review
by Mark Hensch
First released in 2005, the Sunn-O))) album known simply as Black One anchored itself like the corpse of a beached whale---rotten and unmoving---deep within the musical underground's collective consciousness. Much like that whale, Black One is an album rotten and foul, gargantuan and mammoth. While we are quickly nearing the two year anniversary of said album, Black One remains a monolith to the transcendental powers of darkness. People sit and stare in wonder at the titanic bulk of this music, wondering, "What is it? What does it mean to us? Where will things go from here?"
None of these questions are easy to answer. Once again akin to that aforementioned whale, Black One is an unavoidable symbol of crushing, absolute mass. It blots out nature, swallows space, fills matter with itself. So massive and outright big is it that, to date, I personally think people are still trying to fully understand it. Why? In a lot of ways, Black One is the kind of album that is rarely made anymore. It doesn't conform to any specific genre for example, liberally mixing the band's earlier droning and hypnotic noise with cold and morbid black metal. This fusion represents a sort of dual fulfillment; the doom/drone of Sunn-O))) is finally fulfilled, its misanthropy and consuming hatred at last being granted a proper means of expressing its tone (aimless evil and hatred). On the other hand, the inherent primitive nature of Scandinavian Black Metal is finally reached, Sunn-O))) freezing atmospheric tremolo-melodies and icy riffs to a crawl reminiscent of prehistoric monsters slithering in primordial ooze. This self-completing double-purpose, this joint-venture into despair, opens up venues so far-reaching not even Sunn-O))) can explore them properly yet. Like most albums that are ahead of them though, this is not the point. The point is that such ideas are now there.
And this is what makes Black One a tricky review for me. No matter how deeply I am immersed, or how frequently I enter the void, Black One in and of itself is so big an entity I simply cannot truly pierce it. Sunn-O))) always has and always will be a band of massive sounds and tones; on this, the band has finally hit the nail on the head. Every second of the sixty-seven minutes of Black One screams of a purpose reached. At times almost absurd in its uncompromising and alienating isolation, at others this disc reaches out with a sense of clarity and accessibility no prior Sunn-O))) album has possessed. Though some were perplexed by the decision to add black metal influences to drone and turn it into an entire album, the added structure and forced compliance with serious and deep atmospherics have expanded the Sunn-O))) dimension to infinite lengths. What once seemed like a free-form, mildly aggravating headrush of slow, pulverizing buzz is now a wonderfully thick, smothering fog of structure and sound, misery and chaos. I've never heard anything as simultaneously beautiful and obliterating as this.
"Sin Nanna" crafts the kind of spiritual, meditative music that Sunn-O))) is frequently lauded for. Slowly pounding drums crash all over while a sinister hum of layered groans rushes around listeners. Sunn-O))) furthers the ominous yet epic effect by adding all sorts of layers to these simple yet gigantic noises; the end result is a song that throbs like the heart of a giant yet bleeds toxic and blackened blood. "It Took the Night to Believe" is summoned out of this aura perfectly and is in my opinion one of the strongest aural experiences Sunn-O))) has ever created. Like an endlessly boundless snake uncoiling, an elephantine tremolo-melody weaves slowly and effortlessly through glittering caverns of rumbling menace. The vocals are Neanderthal howls and demonic cacophony; this is how the initial meeting between man and monster sounded. The snake-like melody I mentioned earlier swallows itself whole by emerging as a singular, confrontational, and all-devouring entity; following this, the song is sent to the gizzard and the song is muffled as it descends into "Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)."
"Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)" takes the lyrics from Immortal's classic song of the same name off 1995's Battles in the North and further corrupts them. Already mystical, esoteric, and magical stuff, the caustic and inhuman howls courtesy of Leviathan/Lurker of Chalice's Wrest perfectly mesh with the potent ritualism going on behind him. Said ritualism is what it would sound like if you were paralyzed and slowly buried in a light snowfall, able to somehow hear the process at the same time. Starting off a wispy ambience that evokes the hollow stab of icy blizzards, the vokills kick in and soon the music churns itself into swirling void of death's rattle. This gradually-spinning, completely annihilating destruction adds subtle layers of further massacre, leaving listeners pleading for a respite. In purist doom fashion, said respite never comes and the song wears itself down into a razor-sharp point, brittle yet biting. This last ebony shard, darkness frozen in essence, drags across frail skin and cuts listeners in half, only to spare them at the last possible second with its delicate fracture. Cover or not, this is an otherworldly experience and quite possibly the most mentally-consuming thing I've ever heard.
The soft introductory fuzz of "Orthodox Caveman" swells into an upright, muscular, and droning riff ala more traditional Sunn-O))). As expected as this droning is, never once does it stray from its predetermined path and lose focus. Gone now is the abstract, purely sonic torture of say Flight of the Behemoth <\i>; now Sunn-O))) have taken the metallic legacy of doom wrought by Earth and made it lower, older, stronger. The organic and expansive tectonic rape going on here sounds like two planets sumo-wrestling, so colossal are the pummeling washes of sound. Underneath all the roaring feedback and bristling squeal comes a wonderfully churning flurry of double-bass, a raw beat so primal one can almost be forgiven for missing it.
The grim "Candlegoat" kicks off a flickering clean passage and ghostly scratching. Ponderous grooves crawl with the advancing patience of an army of glaciers, and without warning malicious shrieks emerge from the murk in a perfect fusion with the atmosphere. The song's abrupt sinking into a mere bubble of noxious toxins leaves one gasping for air, and perfectly susceptible to the behemoth that is "Cry for the Weeper." "Weeper" unleashes delicate, wavering malice, the sort of shadowy evil that flits and slides over open spaces in the night. The sounds of creaking portals and grating distortion evoke the closing of coffins; a spike of iron dissonance emerging is the proverbial nail sealing the casket.
One cannot have a casket without a burial and the funeral in question is a wickedly distorted cover of Bathory's "A Fine Day to Die," entitled "Bathory Erzsebet." A sense of lingering corruption mixes with the echoing pall of church bells. Softly disarming, the song sneaks up on you with a gradual holocaust of brilliantly burning drone. Amidst the ashes there comes the frightening and honest vokills of Xasthur's Malefic, who supposedly was locked in a coffin and then placed in the back of a hearse for the recording of his vocal tracks on this song. All of it leads into a sort of blackened wave, a murky haze that absolutely smothers until there is nothing left but an eerie, blank silence.
This all-encompassing unlight remarks a shift that was highly radical for Sunn-O))), and not truly duplicated since. Though always a band to push boundaries, one can still fall into monotony during anti-conformity as well. As such, the stripping of Sunn-O)))'s hypnotic, cathartic, and celestial elements down into evil and perverted forms of themselves is sheer genius. This is the benchmark for drone-doom as a genre for years to come, and it is my hope that Sunn-O))) leave Black One to its name...dark, isolated, and completely unique. For those already capable of tapping into the vast cosmic forces at work here, bow down before the new milestone. For everyone else, this is as close as one can get in scaling the peaks of madness.
Sunn-O)))'s Black One
1. Sin Nanna
2. It Took the Night to Believe
3. Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)---(Perverted Immortal Cover)
4. Orthodox Caveman
6. Cry for the Weeper
7. Bathory Erzsebet (Perverted Bathory Cover)
CD Info and Links
Sunn-O))) - Black One
Rating:10 out of 10 if you are truly willing to invest energy and time; 7 out of 10 on its own merits.
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