Sunn O))) & Boris

Altar

(Southern Lord; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

This is ridiculous music. From the idea to the packaging, the song titles to the release date, these thunderous pagans have merged Boris’ protean assault to miasmic Sunn O)))’s fury, resulting in 54 minutes of mission statement, not music. “We are metal bands. This is our metal.” Yes. Wait. Why doesn’t it sound like metal?

We all know the answers to that question, but to recap: which motherfucker out there is gonna prove that “The Sinking Belle” isn’t metal? So perhaps it does, as has been suggested, sound like the Cowboy Junkies played at quarter speed, a few piano notes ricocheting off quavering guitars, drums stumbling behind in a seven-minute dirge. It’s a pomo wrecking ball at its most severe, demanding that the listener admit that polyrhythmic hell-raising does not a genre make. Only it does, of course: “genre” is a way of superficially classifying things, and if something does not sound nor rock like metal, then it probably is not metal. The problem is, this is metal. The packaging so clearly identifies it as such!

It’s all a game of context with these clowns, and Altar is nothing if not an Album album, and so “Sinking Belle” must be seen as, perhaps, a swan song to musical form before the album outright ruptures with “Akuma No Kuma.” Like Cronenberg had to flip that monkey inside out at the beginning of The Fly to assert his dominance over the viewer, so “Etna” sets the mood here, all slow-rumbling circles of guitar over symbolic cymbal ickiness. It’s up to the drums to create the tension on this black one, a series of thick tom hits rolling to the surface once, halfway through, and then again toward the song’s close, this time also teasing out a soul-fucked lead guitar line to lick clean the lacerations they simultaneously cause. Okay, I know: I’m falling victim to it already, searching for synonyms for “punishing” and “brutal,” thinking of metaphors to describe the pits of hell in which Dom’s corpse roasts. (At least I think that’s what happened.) This is why I don’t write about metal much. Like a half-assed critic that can’t get passed Fiddy’s bulletproof vest, I often find myself mired in Sunn O)))’s robes as much as their music.

But Boris and Sunn O))) don’t fall victim to the clichés of doom metal as easily as I do. Unlike Mastodon, who can revel in kitsch while sounding desperately earnest, these fellow travelers left the box to think outside it and then decided to carpet bomb the fucking idea of boxes altogether. This is why “N.L.T.” is paper-thin drone, not quite thick enough to cause unease, and “The Sinking Belle” sounds as suffocatingly lovely as its name would suggest. Sandwiched between incendiary “Etna” and apocalyptic “Akuma No Kuma,” but still bleeding into their surroundings with grace and ease, “N.L.T.” and “Belle” help these bands subvert clichés about what constitutes this genre. So they release a record on Halloween, act ridiculous, “rock” -- at the end, this might as well have been put out by a Swede in a turtleneck with three names. It’s art rock that doesn’t rock. Apt name, drone metal.

So a firebreathing behemoth like “Akuma No Kuma,” which shreds not with axes but because of a horn and a fucking vocoder, ends up becoming the centerpiece of the record. All the things that typically make metal metal -- drums, guitars, etc. -- are ambience here. Vocoders warble, maybe backwards, until the self-aware brass ascends (on a pillar of hellfire, etc.). The musicians have, of course, brought the heavy already on this record, toward the end of “Etna,” but the eight minutes that constitute “Akuma No Kuma” utterly devastate coming after “Belle.” The twenty-five remaining minutes are the nothing-sounds after a bomb hits: “Fried Eagle Mind” could cause nose bleeds, and its insistent demands that I “sleeeeep” have the exact opposite effect, while “Blood Swamp” is all slow-mo Earth noodling, rising in pitch and intensity until the album shudders to a close. This isn’t a stunning record, per se; it sounds a lot like one would imagine a collaboration between these bands to sound, which is its own sort of stunning fact. Prolific, confounding, and severe, Boris and Sunn O))) continue pillaging metal’s past, producing music of a texture and density that would be alien to their influences. It’s not virgins they’re sacrificing to Satan on the Altar here; it’s their peers.