Yes, that’s right, last night I manned up and journeyed to Manchester to see the (in)famous Sunn O))) live.
I’m always a little anxious going to any gig. Mostly that’s because I’m going on my own, and frequently I’ve been sojourning to London, so I think it’s justified. This time the trip didn’t concern me (I had company for once), it was what was waiting for me inside the HMV that I was anxious about. A quick Google of Sunn performances reveals a common theme; “loudest thing I’ve ever heard”, “ears traumatised”, etc. I was fully anticipating coming back home today and typing this up with similar thoughts and telling you how abused my ears were but I can’t really do that. Which is a shame, because I was looking forward to it.
Make no mistake, Sunn were loud. I mean, they were really fucking loud. Unquestionably the loudest thing I’ve ever heard, but it wasn’t just about volume, it was about what was making it loud, the “music” itself. I’ve heard plenty of loud stuff before; The Chemical Brothers last year at Creamfields for instance were astoundingly loud, but the music was melodic and discontinuous, it had peaks and troughs. Sunn did not. Sunn was 2 solid hours of some of the most punishing noise and drone, and it was just the sheer relentlessness of it that made it so overwhelming, yet also intoxicating.
They were opened by Phurpa, a Tibetan Throat Singing trio. They started surprisingly early and we missed the first 15 minutes or so as we made our way there from the station (navigating our way partly by the position of the sun in the sky), but I have a feeling we didnt miss much. You know when people impersonate the Inception theme tune by going “BWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM”? Well, in no uncertain terms, that’s basically how Phurpa sounded. It was vocal drone, as it were, with some improvised instrumentation with cymbals and drums.
But Sunn were the main event, so let’s focus on them. About 20 minutes before they came on the faux-smoke/dry ice started rolling in. Stage lights were shut off and you couldnt see anything of the stage or the first 5 rows of people in front of it. Even when they came on and it was illuminated, the fog was so dense you still couldnt see the robed figures donning their instruments. It’s funny, when that first note came through the speakers, that enormously feedbacked and reverbed guitar at dangerous sound levels, I couldnt help but smile. The reviewers were right, it was fucking loud; a guy standing next to me had an app on his phone which registered near enough 91dB. If that was correct, which I suspect it wasn’t, it’s the same volume as a pneumatic drill, with a 2 hours before damage rating.
But the sound, it was indescribable. It was…ferocious and raw, it was everything, utterly all-consuming. The walls, the columns, the chairs, drinks, my skeleton, everything was shaking and rattling under the ridiculous levels of bass. The earplugs mostly countered the high-frequency elements (which did dullen the sound somewhat), and what was left that came through was mostly in the lower range of the spectrum. Lucky really, because without them I know I would have suffered massively; there was a lot of treble from the guitar that was incredibly piercing.
The sound itself was dynamic, much more progressive and active than plain old drone. There were definite moments when new chords were played but the length of time they were sustained was just ridiculous, impossible almost. Honestly, they were so heavily distorted and elongated they basically ceased to sound like conventional guitars at all.
There were some vocals, mostly buried under the sheer cacophony of the guitar, but there were some discernable moments and some screaming/wailing towards the end. There was some kind of flanger applied that made the scream oscillate too, it was incredible.
If you’ve heard anything like Sunn, or indeed Sunn themselves, you’ll know what their sound is like; heavy, drone/doom with a sprinkling of noise. Basically metal but 20 times slower. Listening at home through headphones or even a good pair of speakers wont even come close to seeing them live; the whole point of Sunn is the atmosphere, the experience, the scale of their sound. The only true way of experiencing it is at these obscene volumes, where your entire body is affected and there is no room in your head for anything but the sound itself.
They were certainly interesting. Not enjoyable exactly but definitely impressive and I’m glad I for having seen them. I wouldn’t say they were life altering, not for me anyway, but I can see how people could come away from it and feel different (likely due to the expulsion of bodily fluids out of shock). I’m knackered (got in at 6:30am), so if this doesn’t seem particularly descriptive I apologise, but I really have no other way of saying: “ridiculously loud guitars with shit-tonnes of reverb and feedback and some scary metal vocals and lots of smoke and it was very, very loud”