Sunn O))) is a band of contrasts. Their music resides in a strange hinterland between minimalism and maximalism, one where they can extract the most extreme, and overwhelming, noise from a single chord played out for what seems like an eternity. Similarly, the weighty experimentalism of their work sits alongside the preposterously liberal application of dry ice at their live shows, and their monkish attire, with a bizarre synergy.
Life Metal embraces such incongruities as gleefully as any of their other projects. Given their booming reputation, these details are often subtly wrought. Between Sleipnir’s Breaths, for instance, opens with the wild neigh of a disturbed horse, yet the intervening drone spectacle is concluded with the beast’s dismissive harrumph. It’s a minor touch that’s indicative of the sly wink that runs through more of their music than some would be happy to acknowledge.
Elsewhere, the sludgy, billowy rumble and dramatic plunge of Troubled Air is garnished with the odd tinkle of a triangle. While it’s not an entirely expected detail, it is one that draws a smile and adds a welcome bright contrast to the dark ambient dirge that comes from a band that has always embraced theatre both live and on record.
As an overarching genre, metal has often suffered from a perceived tendency to take the theatrical aspect of its themes and aesthetic a little too seriously. But Sunn O))) somehow manage the melodrama in a knowing, yet never sneering, way.
The record is a series of constantly shifting oscillations from the initial brutality of Novae, that eventually gives way to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s deep, sonorous electric cello, to the bright lines that flash through Troubled Air. These distinctions summon wide-eyed wonder to conjure a host of emotionally rich resonances.
Each of the record’s four tracks is simultaneously spacious and also a claustrophobically all-consuming black hole of noise. And there’s something oddly cleansing about the way their music is utterly domineering. To listen to Life Metal is to absolve yourself of any other distractions, be they big or small, a notion that’s further fortified by the monastic vocal of the opening track.
If sonically the album issues nods to both cosmic and earthly atmospheres, so do the titles – breath, novae, air, Aurora – and the latter is perhaps their airiest of them all, with a pace that suggests zero-gravity movement. Conversely, the closing track, Novae, explodes with sky-bound riffs that aim for the outer reaches.
Their explorations of frequency, stretched chords, distended noise and vibrating air creates a space where physics and mysticism are complementary rather than conflicting concepts. And it seems fitting that the band recorded with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in analogue, where every ounce of both the physical and metaphysical elements of their air-shifting riffs were tangibly captured to tape.
As with the Scott Walker collaboration, Sunn O))) have further subverted assumptions around what will and will not mix. Life Metal is possibly the warmest record they have created. It’s also a fun, dizzying, and a deeply affecting one, from a band that stimulates the nervous system, tickles the grey matter and threatens tinnitus like few others can.
Life Metal resonates in the surrounding air particles long after the last track concludes, and will reverberate in the minds of listeners longer still. A truly magnificent, very real, and ultimately restorative record.