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Scott Walker + Sunn O))) - Soused

Posted on Thursday, 23 October 2014 | No Comments

RILY: avant-metal, sado-masochism, bumping beaky.

Time makes fools of us all: for an example,  when writing about Scott Walker's bawdy 2012 release Bish Bosch at the start of this very blog, I noted its use of thundering percussion and distorted guitar riffs as a base component, feeling pleasantly smug for observing how its bleak yet comic subject matter and its stark, heavy sound made it Walker's take on metal. Return back to the present day, and the notion of calling it Scott's metal album is as quaint as it is wrong. Because here they come, the men in the druid robes with the wall of amplification towering above them, their unstoppable force meeting the immoveable object of late Scott. You can imagine him allowing himself a slight chuckle in private just before his new players touched down in Britain: you thought that was my metal record? Oh, I'll give you my metal record...
In these world where the dead rarely remain so and the impossible becomes inevitable, few announcements can be as surprising, as surreal yet as genuinely right as the announcement of Soused, a full-length studio collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O))). Prior to the release of their long-in-the-works Ulver collaboration Terrestrials, the band had teased the prospect of another collaboration with an unnamed artist, but who could have guessed at such a perfect pairing? Even whilst stretching song form and arrangement to the limits on The Drift and Bish Bosch, Scott Walker had reflected on a desire to curb his more mono-maniacial studio tendencies and produce a work that could work in a band format: as for Sunn O))), if Terrestrials had suggested a band still unsure how to follow-up Monoliths & Dimensions (coasting though - well, more a fine act of levitation really), this gave them the chance to put their grand, imposing sound in an entirely new context. Rather than the fascinating car-crash that came about when Lou Reed gave Metallica a call up, Soused is the album Lulu never even attempted to be - two formidable names operating at (or at least near) the peak of their game, using their respective strengths to fulfil each other's ambitions in generous fashion. Walker comes away with, at last, his band album: Sunn O))) get to put their drone to new use.

Another important difference between Lulu and Soused to note as well: while both records functioned by handing over the writing of the auteur to be layered with the muscle of the backing band, the presence of Metallica  proved far too much for Reed's material to handle, bludgeoning rather than strengthening his oblique song cycle. But the tectonic sound Sunn O))) conjure up has always been as capable of hanging in the background as driving at the forefront. Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley (ably assisted on this release by frequent Sunn O))) collaborator Tos Nieuwenhuizen, who handles additional lead guitar and moog) have proven themselves sensitive players inside and outside of the duo, and as much as a signature sound as overwhelming as theirs can be described as malleable, they allow themselves to be shaped and warped around the demands of Walker's typically ambitious, nuanced lyrics and dark soundscapes.

Less typical though are the songs he brings to the table, four new compositions and one previously written for Ute Lemper (Walker contributed two typically intense late-period works to her 1999 album Punishing Kiss: the piece reprised here, Lullaby (By-by-by), was curiously relegated to a bonus track for Japan). Taken together, these five compositions move much further down the path that Bish Bosch opened of removing the orchestration and grandiose scale of Walker's arrangements and substituting it with drone, static, streamlining the sound without sacrificing the epic qualities of Walker's visions. Certainly, with Sunn O))) behind you, it's hard to come up with something that doesn't take gargantuan proportions.

Indeed, if there's a real surprise here, it's that the most dramatic departure from the last two decades of Walker's work is in the immediacy of the material. Brando starts with an ingenious bit of bait-and-switch, Walker's soaring croon and a slice of lead guitar that recalls nothing so much as Sweet Child O' Mine before everything pauses and the roar of Anderson and O'Malley's downtuned guitars kicks on. Walker has addressed his long abandoned homeland before on record - the post-September 11 trauma of Jesse or the title track of Tilt most obviously - but here his long-term fascination with the cinema turns into a critique of American imperialism, the narrative relocating the violence so often inflicted on Marlon Brando in the name of celluloid into an image of a self-flagellating nation harming itself in frustration as it reaches the limits of geographic and political power. The Sunn O))) guitar army, accompanied by whip-cracks, provides the deep canyons across which Walker's voice soars, not to mention an obvious parallel with Walker's first great separation from the pop mainstream, 1977's violent masterpiece The Electrician, notable for the baritone guitar drone running across the arrangement like a scar.

This theme of thwarted schemes and need runs throughout Soused. It's both "never enough" but also too much, the ebb and flow of the guitars like charting the landscape of an earth scorched by the crazed pursuit of power and nefarious desire, the devastated aftermath of the Pandora's box opened in Bish Bosch. Herod 2014 takes the old Walker obsession with dictators and reaches back to one of the oldest examples there is, the sound of a bell chiming softly, consistently in the background beneath the distorted churn, mothers hiding their babies away in a landscape not so much Biblical as current, Herod cast here as a background tormenter, the original of those that came after him and unleashed bloody mayhem in the middle east, from Saddam Hussein to Tony Blair, a mockery of how small a distance we've really travelled. On Bull, Sunn O))) deliver perhaps their fastest but also their most head-poundingly heavy riff to date in aid of a crazed narrator trying to push beyond the limits of human experience, no matter how violent or final the end result might be, constantly interrupted by Walker exhorting his figure to Bump the beaky, transcendence as brutality as perverse re-enactment of some hypothetical novelty dance song. Fetish meanwhile expands on the fleshy nature of Bish Bosch, a squalid tale of furtive trysts as a substitute for more violent urges (and vice versa). The music too, shifting from shaked rhythms and pitch-shifted horn sounds into a pounding industrial stomp upon the arrival of Anderson and O'Malley harks the closest here to Walker's previous release, but even then the intense mid-section where piercing synth stabs scream above the drone finds the players raising the stakes and making an over-powering wall of sound from a basic, elemental arrangement. As with all Sunn O))) releases, maximum volume yields maximum results is the best way to enjoy this one.

The album's greatest statement arrives at the finish, as Lullaby re-emerges from undeserved obscurity (Lemper's version remains a joy, as does her performance of Scope J in hindsight a dry-run of what Walker would achieve on The Drift) to end the album on, well, the end. In an unusually revealing interview for The Quietus, Walker described the song as a take on assisted suicide, and the confusion of the lyrics, juxtaposing a frayed nostalgia with the raw mechanics of euthanaisia, is a suitably jagged and haunting take on the thoughts on someone taking this path. Inevitably, the arrangement has been somewhat overhauled from the Lemper performance, but it's the piece where the presence of Sunn O))) is at its most (relatively) subtle. The drone running through the verses is subdued, sleeping almost, offset by percussive clicking and snaking little clean guitar picks, with even the chiming metal stomp (of the kind, one can only assume, that Lou Reed had hoped Metallica might have brought to the table) of the chorus subsumed over violent treble sounds and Walker's piercing roar. It's a remarkable performance all round from an album full of the things, one likely to stand as one of the great highlights of the work of both artists featured here.

Soused could not been mistaken for the product of any other mind than the mind of Walker: the song-writing vocabulary he has established for himself is just too singular, too protected from replication by others to be anything else. What Sunn O))) have brought is a new focus and mooring to proceedings, their signature sound rooting Walker's songs in a dense fog. Quite unexpectedly (and delightfully), this is the most accessible release Sunn O))) have put their name to so far, and it's also the most immediate Scott Walker release in decades. Soused is the sound of a truly singular songwriter changing his methodology so as to allow the fresh blood of another remarkable musical voice to renew their work. One can only hope the rare chemistry the two have discovered does not end here.

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