Life Metal, the new studio album from Seattle, Washington based drone outfit Sunn O))), stands as yet another diverse offering in the band’s eclectic discography. Crackling with volcanic energy, the album is aptly named; the hour-long journey throughout Life Metal engulfs listeners in a tumultuous storm of primordial energy.
To the uninitiated, Sunn O))) may come off as a quasi-hipster art project or a joke. The band’s iconic sound, conjured by core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, consists of down-tuned guitars drenched in distortion, holding single sustained notes for long periods of time.
Yet, their distinct musical style isn’t born out of sardonic malice for listeners or highbrow delusion; it’s based on a vast component of music history. Drone music has been a part of many musical stylings, across the globe and throughout history. Elements of drone can be found in Australia with the didgeridoo, in Japanese classical music, and in the Tanpura, a stringed instrument from India. Sunn O))) draws from these influences, marrying them with modern influences of metal and rock noise, to craft their signature wall of sound.
Despite their seemingly simple modus operandi, Sunn O))) has found ways to infuse their music with new stylings throughout their discography, and Life Metal is no exception. Most notably, Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars are significantly brighter than they are on past albums such as Black One and Monoliths & Dimensions. While these albums featured, dark, snarling guitar drones with a muted high end, the guitars on Life Metal shimmer vibrantly at the high end, while maintaining a meaty lower register.
Although Life Metal is decidedly rooted in drone ideology, the songs are dynamic, and feature soaring payoffs. The album’s stand-out track “Troubled Air” begins with a cacophony of ominous, rumbling guitar and organ lines that slowly morph into harmony with a soaring climax in the last minute or so of the track. “Troubled Air” positions listeners at the apex of creation, swathing them within chaos that resolves with primal beauty. It’s not hard to imagine that this is what the big bang must have sounded like.
“Novae,” the album’s closer track, is also a strong examples of Sunn O)))’s tasteful minimalism. Part way through the track, the dominating guitars melt away to reveal a hollow, woody cello line. The contrast is sublime as the sonic palette shifts from ethereal and synthetic to something more raw and tactile. Anderson and O’Malley dress the stringed passage with soaring guitar harmonics, producing an effect that is similar to witnessing a jurassic, avian creature cutting across the landscape of an ancient, untouched world.
Some moments on Life Metal, though, aren’t as stunning, though. Particularly, Sunn O)))’s incorporation of vocals this time around is less than satisfying. Typically, the band finds creative ways to include vocal lines- the pagan chants on Monoliths & Dimension and Malefic’s claustrophobic screeches on “Bathory Erzsebet” stand out as prime examples. However, on Life Metal’s opening track “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths,” the female vocals feel out of place. Not only are the vocal tracks dry, lacking any type of sonic breadth, but they are mixed in a way that clusters them to the point of obscurity. The latter typically isn’t an issue in Sunn O)))’s music, but in this particular cut the voices do not meld whatsoever with the vast soundscape.
Shortcomings aside, Life Metal is a strong entry into Sunn O)))’s catalogue of experimental drone metal excursions. For newcomers, it’s an album best approached as an experience to be had, rather than a body of music to passively consume. For those willing to surrender to Sunn O)))’s primeval, unrelenting assault, a vast journey that finds beauty in opposition awaits.
4 out of 5 stars.