Sunn O))) is a band that has always intrigued me, as its something so acclaimed in heavy music yet lacks any of the attributes I’m drawn to in music. I love drumming and rhythm sections in general, two things they completely lack. My first exposure to Sunn O))) was 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions, the production encouraging the listener to crank their systems and let the drone take you away to some sinister place in your brain. As I’ve delved further into their discography, I took note of a phrase that is echoed across their records packaging and liner notes:
MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS
As the reality set in that I was going to finally be experiencing Sunn O))) in a live setting, I knew that I needed to prepare for the wall of chaotically loud sound. A lifetime of playing in bands and attending shows and I have never worn ear plugs, but knowing that Sunn O))) typically reaches stage volumes of at least 120db convinced me to start.
For comparison, standing on a runway and watching a commercial airliner take off is around 120db. I would be seeing Sunn O))) in the intimate Philly venue Underground Arts, which is more or less a small concrete box.
The earplugs I hastily ordered through Amazon advertised a 30db drop across all frequencies which would provide me with clear listening abilities without raping my ear drums. I gave the plugs a test run during opening act Papa M, who’s 30 minute set consisted of acoustic guitar over moody synth and effect backdrops.
Things seemed to hold up although I doubted his stage volume was anything close to what was to come. After spending the better part of the week listening to the brand new album Life Metal, I came to realize Sunn O)))’s setlists are largely improvisational drones that run around 90 minutes.
This performance was unique to this tour, as it was a SHOSHIN set, which meant core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson would be performing alone with no auxiliary synths or vocals. As the lights dimmed and a thick fog filled the room, I was taken aback by how much fog filled the venue. It was intense enough that I truly couldn’t see more than 3-4 feet ahead of me, I wasn’t sure the band was onstage until I was literally punched in the face with sound.
The first 5 minutes of the set was something so incredibly unique and hard to explain but I will try my best. The down turned wall of sound was so intense it felt like my entire body was vibrating, I had to double check that my ear plugs were seated correctly. The bass was literally heard AND felt throughout my body, but oddly enough I became accustomed to it after a few minutes.
What little amount of the crowd I could see around me were experiencing the same thing I was, a surprising amount of them wearing no ear protection at all. I found myself eventually in almost a meditative state, as the grimmrobe clad O’Malley and Anderson let low notes sustain before crashing into another wall of dissonance in perfect unity. Infamous tales of crowd members uncontrollably emptying their bowels or throwing up due to the low frequencies did not come to fruition on this night, but I totally would understand if somebody did lose control brown note style.
What would normally be a momentary break from the chaos in a trip to the bathroom yielded no relief on this night, as my body continued to resonate and rumble due to the low frequencies while emptying my bladder of the tall boy PBR’s I had consumed earlier. Upon reentering the venue floor, I noticed some of the crowed retreated further back looking notably fatigued from the intensity. After about 90 minutes or so, I picked up White2 on vinyl and made my way to the parking lot. The removal of my earplugs and subsequent readjustment period was an odd feeling after being pummeled by low frequencies for so long.
As I sit here typing this, four complete days have elapsed and I still don't think my ears have returned to normalcy. The man that I was before Sunn O))) is certainly a different one post Sunn O))). I highly recommend seeing the band once in your life but definitely wear ear protection. Its quite possible the close range exposure to the low frequencies stimulated some part of my brain that caused psychodelic effects, but that's some Joe Rogan fantasy booking shit.
Overall I was happy to have experienced Sunn O))) live, and the show has reignited my interest in delving into their sprawling discography. The recently released Life Metal is return to form of sorts in that it’s extremely drone heavy and features less experimental elements found on Kannon and their collaboration with Ulver in Terrestrials. Those lucky enough to grab tickets will see Sunn O))) more than likely destroy Saint Vitus on Monday night, and that set will also be a SHOSHIN set. Life Metal is out now on Southern Lord Records.
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