Now in its fourth year, London’s Convergence Festival has built a solid reputation as a purveyor of music, arts and technology with a consistently excellent lineup of diverse artists. Across five days and multiple venues you can catch such varied acts as Rival Consoles, Daniel Lanois, Actress, Austra and Manuel Göttsching. Perhaps the one thing that unites them is that they are innovators within their own field – not least the indomitable Sunn O))).
Prior to the gig the festival tweeted a plan for the band’s stage set up that depicted an intimidating bank of amps, merely whetting the appetite of fans already well aware of Sunn O)))’s reputation for ear-splitting noise levels. But before the sonic assault ensued the much gentler proposition of classically trained cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir was set to ease the crowd in.
Of course, this being a Sunn O))) show delicately rendered conventional classical pieces were never going to be the order of the day, Barbican Hall or not. And those familiar with Guðnadóttir’s work are more likely to have encountered her through acts like Throbbing Gristle and Pan Sonic or her own unorthodox music. She does a wonderful job of opening the evening with a continuous piece that stretches over 25-odd minutes of highly distorted and manipulated cello matched with her own pure and high vocal that acts as perfect prep for the headliners, as well as being a mesmeric performance in its own right.
As we all re-enter the hall for the main event, the offer of ear plugs by the Barbican staff only increases the excited apprehension for what we are about to receive. The last time this reviewer saw them was at the 10 Years of ATP Festival, and whilst there’s always a sense of occasion when this band plays live, the size and type of venue they play tonight feeds into the theatre of their performance.
Lets face it, you don’t readily expect to see, what many perceive to be, an intensely loud metal band at a high-end mixed arts space. But that said, the incredibly diverse crowd reflects what anyone familiar with their work knows: genres and scenes don’t really apply to Sunn O))). They have many categories attributed to them, including black metal, dark ambient, drone and doom metal, but their slippery evasion of such neat labels is one of their strengths.
One thing they do consistently adhere to is putting on a multi-sensory show, and from the start of Attila Csihar’s gut rumblingly low vocal, performed solo for a good five minutes, the spell is cast. As the rest of the monkishly robed members take to the stage they are joined by an application of dry ice of mammoth proportions – in fact the first few front rows disappear completely for good few moments.
Musically they create an overwhelming din that forgoes rhythm in any traditional sense, or songs for that matter. Instead they focus on temporally ponderous pieces made up of waves of distortion and extended chords; the addition of occasional trombone being a welcome one, slicing as it does through the low register drone. Visually, the lightening is spectacular and given added drama from the persistent smog.
Performance wise Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson et al remain committed to the tempo, seemly playing in slow motion. Their theatricality comes dangerous close to, but steers just the right side of, hammy when Csihar reappears de-robed, and donning a shattered glass cloak and laser beams protruding from his fingers like some sort of twisted Statue of Liberty. He flips from a vocal that has plumbed the depths of what the human ear can register to a pitch so high it reads as the scream of a thousand children. Following the crescendo they receive a rapturous response from a happily winded crowd.
In many respects Sunn O))) have always made more sense as a live proposition, as after a show like this returning to the records feels like a distinctly one dimensional affair. The eyeball vibrating, cochlea tickling, trachea shakin’ Sunn O))) band is an experience you’ll find hard to replicate. It is an exhausting, exhilarating and contemplative experience that is as immersive as it is inscrutable.