Sunn O))) Spreads Its Sludge at Mezzanine, 12/18/12

Categories: Last Night

Sunn O))) shrouded in darkness at Mezzanine last night.
Dead in the Dirt
December 18, 2012

Better than: A full-body massage.

If you've never been to one, a SunnO))) performance is a thing. More of a movable feast with two fixed leaders than a proper band, every SunnO))) show is essentially the same: two guys with guitars in druid robes pushing a massive backline of amplifiers with rumbling, detuned chords unleashed at molasses-slow tempos. It's an overwhelming experience: sound grows to monstrous proportions, taking on physical characteristics as it massages your skin and slows your thought process like a cannabinoid. Although most clearly related to heavy metal and avant-garde noise, the spectacle is a noteworthy modern phenomenon that anyone of sound mind and body ought to experience once.

Performing in a loosely improvised, broadly structured format, the core duo of guitarists Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson benefits from strong collaborators in live and recorded settings. None of these collaborators is stronger than Attila Csihar, lead singer of legendary black metal band Mayhem and theatrical vocal experimenter and performance artist for many of the best Sunn O))) sets on record. Csihar's strange outfits dropped jaws on the groups last tour; they included a crown of threaded tree branches and a glove emitting laser light beams. It's a good omen that he, along with synth player Tos Nieuwenhuizen, are on offer tonight.

Loincloth hit promptly at 9 p.m., playing serviceable melodic metal through the walls of Mezzanine. It sounded good, but unfortunately this reporter was busy fumbling with one of those circular bike racks while they finished their last song. 

Atlanta's Dead in the Dirt hit next with a set of jagged, extreme metal recalling His Hero is Gone on a Today is the Day jag. Heavy, deep-pocket grooves were their specialty. Faster grooves tended to get away from them, betraying enthusiasm in place of chops. Still, their charm came through, especially when their drummer snapped the head of his snare drum. Just before calling it a night, after a mere 15 minutes on stage, they opted instead to do a vanishingly quick Napalm Death cover before exiting. Well played, gentlemen. 

Every SunnO))) set begins with 20 minutes or more spent droning a low A chord. It's like their own version of the call to prayer. Tonight's source is a Moog synth followed quickly by the most maple syrup-thick guitar chord bombs imaginable. It's presumably like being an ant inside a speaker cone.

It's dark, the stage swathed in shades of deep purple and blue for most of this preamble period before Csihar joins them. Anderson and O'Malley sculpt chords at a glacial frequency, letting the occasional dissonance rattle the inside of everyone's mouth. The fog obscures our vision and the physical sensation of sound is oppressive -- yet it's somehow enjoyable in its purity.

The audience at tonight's show is not unlike a Berkeley audience at a Noam Chomsky lecture on linguistics in 2003 -- enraptured, slightly confused, and willing to stick out long stretches of inscrutability for some inspired nuggets.

Squalls of feedback herald the arrival of Csihar, and just as suddenly, the crushing chordal weight comes back. His guttural intonations sound akin to throat-singing over the strained jags of dimmed guitars. It's surprising that SunnO))) does quiet almost as well as it does loud -- it's also a welcome change of pace, making the next tidal wave of riff hit that much harder. To say Csihar looked ghostly would be like saying the Queen of England is dignified; there's few frontmen in metal that can do scary like he does without risking the slide into camp. He scraped and scratched wind across the inside of his throat like some kind of Clive Barker beast. Often an instrumental project, the permanent members of SunnO))) have expressed discomfort at labeling Csihar as their frontman. But with a performer of his caliber upping their ante, one hopes that they can set interpersonal trivialities aside for the sake of a massively charismatic performance.

Like a conductor, O'Malley waves his hand to call the ensemble to attention just before the great swath of sound is to be abruptly silenced. Outside, the San Francisco night remained unyieldingly cold, and it was easy to forget that Christmas was a mere week away.

Critic's Notebook

Overheard: "I'm distressed by the lack of hygiene in metal fans, in general."

Spotted: A young man in a crimson Druid robe, ordering a Guiness. 


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