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Sunn O))) & Ulver - Terrestrials

Posted on Wednesday, 5 February 2014 | No Comments


Yes, but is it heavy?


In 1974, Miles Davis - a man, at this point, haunted by addictions, ravaged with disease and scorned by the critical fraternity for his turn towards rock and funk textures since the turn of the decade, yet still chasing his ever-roving muse with fire and force - released a dense, difficult double-vinyl set called Get Up with It. It wasn't the only studio set he released that year (another double-vinyl release, Big Fun, had preceded it by mere months), and in both cases these were strange and lengthy beasts stuffed with a mixture of new recordings and unused tracks from earlier in the decade, offering a dizzying overview of how Miles' fusion sound had developed from the grand focused statements of the Bitches Brew era to the more skeletal, sometimes terrifying work he was pursuing as his fans, his record company and his body started to give up on him. Critics were not kind, the fans kept their wallets in their pockets and just a year later Miles, one of the great twentieth century artists in any field, would announce his retirement, his unique creative energy finally spent. (When he did return in 1981, it was with a tamed, pop-fusion sound, the work of a great performer who had already created his great death bed masterpieces yet remained amongst us, playing through his own curious limbo.)

I mention this here because of the grand statement that opened Get Up with It, He Loved Him Madly. A meditative yet impassioned tribute to the late Duke Ellington, this track stands apart from the oppressive sonic wall Miles and his band(s) built up on live records of the era like the Japanese performances captured on Agharta and Pangaea or the scorched earth Carnegie Hall concert of 1974 captured on Dark Magus (a record that to this day seems better understood by listeners from rock and noise than from jazz). Those records threw out a mass of ideas and possibilities as a final purge, the artist in some sense aware that either he speaks now or that he never shall, but He Loved Him Madly is just one grand idea, slowly and carefully evoked with patience and care, as if offering one final complete work before time pressed him into handing over looser drafts of his remaining concepts. Over its thirty-two minutes, it resists the fiery qualities that defined much of the work of this period, yet retains the density. It is, appropriately, a work of loss and of mourning, one great artist saluting the passing of a forefather that made it all possible as he himself reaches the point of supernova. It's a track that is full of possibility, led by an artist at the peak of their powers, yet an unmistakeable cloud hangs around it, the precognitive awareness of some kind of imminent passing.

So, what this has to do with a metal album then? Simple really. Miles, by '74, was a jazzman who had rode out and led several new sounds and movements in jazz and by this point was pushing a sound that collapsed several genres into each other to create a new hybrid that defied easy classification, pushing himself towards his most radical statements yet. Sunn O))) and Ulver are both bands that began in the world of extreme metal, but have both, in their own ways, travelled far outside the realms in which they began. After their early blaze of black-metal releases, Ulver's fifth album Perdition City saw them break from the genre they had already outgrown decisively with its embrace of electronic and jazz sounds. Since then, almost each release has seen the band adopt a new sound, be it the art-rock of Blood Inside, the psychedelic covers of Childhood's End or the dark ambience of Shadows of the Sun (my personal favourite Ulver release). Whilst Sunn O))) have never made such a jarring or sudden artistic shift, their drone metal has slowly opened up over the years to drag a wide variety of collaborators into its gravitational pull over the years, from fellow metal mavericks like Malefic and Atilla Csihar to appearances by Merzbow, Julian Cope and Eyvind Kang. On their last full-length, 2009's Monoliths & Dimensions, their sound blossomed into a grand orchestral force, moving into cosmic jazz territory on closing track Alice (after Alice Coltrane). Much like Miles, Sunn O))) and Ulver are outliers in their field.
 

Perhaps it's because it's their first new studio release in five years or maybe because it's coming out through Southern Lord, but the Sunn O))) side of the collaboration has been played up in the press leading up to Terrestrials' release far more than Ulver's has. Certainly, the first side of the record, consisting of Let There Be Light and Western Horn, falls close to the orchestral sound of Monoliths & Dimensions, but here the guitar duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley provide more of a background shade than a swooping thrust. Let There Be Light comes in slowly, a bed of subtle electronic shimmers delicately filling the space until a proud, searching horn line emerges two minutes in, seemingly falling through the great wormhole on the cover of Monoliths & Dimensions  and out of the end of Alice out into this new realm. There's snatches of rumble and distortion ebbing away, but no grand entrance for those enormous guitars until eight minutes in - they're just one part of this slowly awakening ensemble that evolves before our eyes, before they finally push in, accompanied by dramatic percussion, calling to mind nothing so much as Kubrick's use of Thus Spoke Zarthustra in his 2001: A Space Odyssey. Western Horn is the most typically Sunn O))) piece here, again full of orchestral arrangement and punctuation, but grounded far more firmly in the drone incantations that Anderson and O'Malley have always specialised in. Again though, it's a piece far removed from their more purely metal work, its force coming through repetition and arrangement that the pure power of the riff.

The second half of the record is dedicated to the fourteen minute piece Eternal Return, and it's the track where Ulver's influence on the project is most evident. Amongst the arsenal in the gorgeous, melancholy opening section is that most un-metal of instruments, the noble vibraphone. Anderson and O'Malley explore the mid range of the guitars, and the effect's akin to Shadows of the Sun-era Ulver, with the song forms stripped out and just the exploratory, isolated vistas left behind. It's a truly gorgeous and powerful sequence that slowly peels away to turn into - yes - an honest-to-god synth lament. Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg compounds and conflates different mythologies in his lyric, delivered in a stern yet underpowered baritone, recasting both Eternal Return and Terrestrials as a whole as a pagan rite for some new religion, an origin myth for a new tale of creation. Because this, ultimately, is what Terrestrials is - it's a work that uses great shifting tectonic plates of acoustic and electronic sound to capture the terrifying energy and destruction involved in the building of life and habitats. Eternal Return slowly runs itself out with the Sunn O)) duo returning to the bass frequencies as the strings and vibraphone work on a mournful, graceful theme that answers the opening section in a mirrored yet changed manner.

For those hoping for the genuine answer to what happens next after Monoliths & Dimensions - let alone for those wanting a return to the unrefined power of the pure Sunn O))) sound - Terrestrials is likely to disappoint. It's a record that truthfully has very little to do with metal music of any kind, and far more to do with modern classical composition, electronic ambiance and experimental jazz. (Sunn O)))'s decision to release a limited-edition rehearsal record just prior to this album can certainly be read as a peace offering to the more hardcore elements of their fanbase who just want the doom back.) What this collaboration does successfully is to map out its own hymnal space: for all the darkness and weight that remains in this composition, it's also the most light-filled offering by either act. And so, we come back to Miles' grand act of mourning, He Loved Him Madly, a side-step from the mania of his work at the time that channelled his band's visceral force harnessed it to produce very different sonic and emotional responses. Ulver's influence on Terrestrials is vital and not to be dismissed, but this feels primarily a Sunn O))) effort, even though they take the background for much of the album: it's an inverse of Monoliths, a journey where the hope offered on Alice ends in the creation of a new world. The longer the duo takes to properly follow up that monumental record, the more and more it looks as though even they don't know where or if their sound can be taken anywhere new. Terrestrials then is a side-step, a fine companion that adds shade and nuance to the picture and allows us a deeper appreciation thanks to Ulver's work on it whilst never equalling its quality or depth of expression.. It's an ego-free work, typical of the late work of many a great artist as they come to terms with their mortality. It's hard not to step away feeling, as with He Loved Him Madly, that we've witnessed a sombre, reflective statement from an artist on the verge of running out of possibility.

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