Album Reviews

Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials

(Southern Lord) UK release date: 17 March 2014

Sunn O))) & Ulver - Terrestrials If two worlds were ever to collide, the cataclysmic effects would be so gargantuan that the enormity and ensuing fallout is likely to be beyond the ability of most human brains to fully comprehend. For the coming together of two huge drone/metal/experimental bands the result can only be the same, surely? Well no, actually.

In 2003, Seattle’s Sunn O))) – primarily the duo Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson – first teamed up with Norway’s Ulver for Sunn O)))’s track CUTWOODeD, with production duties taken up by Ulver. Five years later, the American band were performing their 200th gig at Norway’s Øya festival before heading off to Ulver’s Crystal Canyon studio in Oslo for an all-night improvisational session. And so it was that the seeds for Terrestrial were first sown.

In the years that followed, both entities would return to their day jobs, with Monoliths And Dimensions (2009) being the latest heavy doom drone rock offering (furnished with brass) to surface from Sunn O))) and last year’s Messe I.X-VI.X being Ulver’s most recent effort, a largely orchestral piece that saw much of Ulver’s early guise take a back seat.

With subsequent hook-ups between producers O’Malley and Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg occurring only intermittently, it’s taken a long time for those sessions to surface, and the result is rather surprising considering the heavy leanings previously favoured by both bands. A far more overriding ambient, orchestral presence is evident, particularly from the Sunn O))) perspective as there is little here in the way of doom-laden, hellish guitar-infused metal.

Album opener Let There Be Light encapsulates Rygg’s vision perfectly: “We wanted the music to lean towards light, like some lost pilgrim stretching before the sun,” he mused. The track begins at a quiet, minimal level with little other than swirling noise and touches of percussion awakening the beast, with a trumpet heralding the new day alongside rumbles and shimmering cymbals. A muted trumpet then takes over against the backdrop of the ever-droning, writhing body of the music with occasional strings breaking loose as the piece unfolds like a zombie orchestra warming up for a main performance. After eight minutes all falls quiet, only for a pounding drum, cymbals and all other instruments to reappear in an instant, as a crescendo of noise sonically welcomes the arrival of the sun.

Western Horn turns to the dark side, with ominous booms and feedback squall creating a slowly plodding, drone heavy monster, its freeform experimentation resembling little in the way of conventional song structure once again. The mind expanding, hypnotic noise needs to be played at maximum volume for full effect, but the dangers of doing so to the weak minded are clear as the music somehow plays havoc with thought processes. An emotional journey through a disturbing past – if you have one – is possible with such fervent feeling captured within the sound.

Final track Eternal Return opens with more doomy sonics: industrial, metal guitars clang away behind despairing violins, sounding altogether like a resonating echo following a tragic Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds effort. Church organs twist this behemoth in a different direction after seven minutes of hell, synthesizers then leading to the introduction of the only vocals on the collection, Rygg’s devilish murmur cursing its way into your consciousness as the darkness reaches epic proportions. The muttered vocals then develop into full blown cries that Martin Gore would be proud of supplying for something darker than Depeche Mode could ever dream up before the track returns to the anguish of before.

Altogether different from normality, and further down the path towards minimalist orchestral experimentation than expected, Terrestrials is a challenging listen yet it retains some weird, mystic ability to attract and transfix its audience. Impatient listeners, however, need to approach with much caution as there are no quick fixes here, only thought provoking genius that refuses to reveal its full glory until multiple listens unravel the magic within.

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