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An Alternative Sensory World: Witnessing Sunn O)))

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Photo by Kim Nicolini.

I don’t go to a lot of concerts. When I do, I pick carefully. I am a huge fan of art rock, and I want my live music experience to be just that . . . an experience. I don’t want to sing along. I don’t want to tap my foot. I want to FEEL. The last two concerts I went to were the Japanese art rock band Boris and Seattle’s legendary Melvins, masters of drone metal. Both were transcendent experiences. They plummeted me into multilayered dimensions of sound that transported me beyond the concrete world of the ordinary, including the closed box of commercial music.

When I found out this past Wednesday that Sunn O))) would be playing at the Rialto Theater here in Tucson that very same night, I immediately wanted to go, even though I knew this 54-year-old working mom probably shouldn’t drag my ass to a show on a work night, especially to a pummeling art rock show. But then again, I also knew that experiencing Sunn O))) was something I needed. I needed it like a drug carved from sound, something to take me out of the workaday world and the world of bills and pressures and responsibilities. I could escape . . . and touch the intangible.

Sunn O))) was influenced by the Melvins and has often collaborated with Boris, but they are also famous for their entirely own thing. The band is named after the brand of amplifier they use in their performances, and they like to say that the amps are the real stars. The band churns out extremely slow, extremely loud, body-penetrating sound featuring long notes pulled out of two guitars in dialogue with each other. Delay, reverb and the undercurrent of sound create audioscapes without percussion or rhythm. No drums, the core of the band features the founding two guitarists – Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson – who use their guitars and occasional bass, amps and effects to create a completely immersive music experience. The two guitarists face each other, allowing their instruments to create luminous feedback and communicate through a low undulating nuanced wall of sound.

This is basically how I described the band to the guy at work who asked me if I was going to the show. He’s an engineer, mathematician and music enthusiast. When I explained how Sunn O)))’s music functions, he asked, “How could you miss it? You gotta go.”

The concert was billed to go from 8-10 pm with two opening acts. I am a one act girl. If I go, I go for the band I want to see. Like everything else I do in my life, I pour a thousand percent of myself into listening to and experiencing music, just like I do art, movies, parenting, and life. So if I was going to go, I was going to just catch Sunn O))). Come 7:45 pm, I was out running in the desert, when I looked west and witnessed the giant red ball of the setting sun sinking behind the mountains. I realized it was telling me something: “If you miss Sunn O))), you will regret it for the rest of your life. Go! Now!”

The sun was right. I ran home as fast as I could. I threw on a pair of jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, and rushed downtown. I pulled into a parking spot one block from the theater at 9:10 pm, walked up to the ticket booth, bought a ticket, found out the band was going on at 9:40, and realized my timing was perfect. Clearly, it was meant to be.

Of course I bought a concert tee not just as memorabilia but to support the band. The other thing about Sunn O))) is that they are able to do what they do – create art in the guise of music that 99.99999% of commercial radio stations would never play – because they do it themselves. They are a DIY band. Most of their albums are produced on their own label, Southern Lord, founded by Greg Anderson. They are adamant about not letting record companies leech off their art or their pocketbooks , and in no way do they allow for commercial interests to direct what they do. They create music and sound that breaks through all conventions and barriers (including the sound barrier), and they refute Big Music business entirely, both by what they create and how they distribute it. Some of their songs are crafted to be the length of one side of an LP, something that a big business record company would never allow. Sunn O))) has free creative reign, and they use it to create something revolutionary in the world of sound.

Their entire discography is also available on Bandcamp as an alternate form of distribution. Part of their description on Bandcamp is “minimalism/maximalism.” That is exactly how I would describe them, maximal minimalism. They deliver maximum experience through minimal means, sometimes extending one note for minutes before shifting to another, allowing that one note to penetrate our ears, body, and mind in all its variant forms before changing.

In a lecture he gave in New York, Stephen O’Malley talks about analyzing the listener data on bandcamp. He said the average listener will only listen to 2.5 minutes of a song. Then he laughs and says, “That’s not even the length of the first note of one of our songs!” Seriously, Sunn O))) has songs that open with a single sustained note that lasts in all its variations over ten minutes. Then O’Malley says (to paraphrase) that it’s okay because it is how the listener is engaged and the intent of the listener that is important. Sunn O))) absolutely insists that the listener engage with their music. If the listener doesn’t engage, let go, and give him/herself over to the experience, then time for something else, maybe the Top 40. Even if the listener is fully engaged for only 2.5 minutes and has an “experience” as a result, then their sensory perception of music and the aesthetic world can shift. Certainly Sunn O))) takes “being experienced” to an entirely new level of music and body consciousness. They create sound sculptures with the intent to allow audiences to have otherworldly experiences through physical transformation inspired by sound that literally saturates the body.

All that said, back to the show. I chuckled and jested with the guy at the shirt table as I squeezed my head into my new t-shirt and pulled it down over the Boris shirt I was already wearing. I told him how excited I was to be slammed by the Sublime Wall of Sound. He asked, “Did you bring your earplugs?” I reached in my back pocket, pulled out two pair, and said, “I have a teenage daughter. I buy earplugs in bulk.” He laughed and thought I rocked for being a nearly 54 year old mom at a Sunn O))) concert.

I could hear the thrum coming from the banks and banks of amps in the auditorium. The entire building was buzzing. The sidewalks outside were vibrating. These amps are called the “backline” in music terms. The frontline is the musicians. Besides their towering wall of amps, Sunn O))) is also known for the notorious black hooded robes which they wear on stage and which obscure their faces and bodies entirely. The band members are barely human, but rather black shapes or spirits moving through fog within the wall of sound emanating from the backline amps. They do not wear the robes to be dramatic or play at satanic costumes but rather to give the sound the priority and not distract the audience with faces. The robes de-identify the musicians and resist pop idolatry. By masking any recognizable face in darkness, the band puts the art of sound front and center. Per O’Malley: “When you have a uniform involved in any context, it’s to remove the individual identity. That’s the purpose. And to create a cohesive identity.” When they first began playing live shows, Sunn O))) actually put the amps at the front of the stage and made them the frontline while the band stood behind the amps and became the backline, an act which merged sound and audience without the disruption of the musicians’ bodies.

When I walked into the auditorium and snaked my way to the front of the stage, I was immediately mesmerized by the amps. I leaned into the stage, and the amps literally penetrated my body with their thrum. Their hum rolled right through my heart. My organs were rearranging themselves to the sound, and the band hadn’t even started playing yet.

The fog machine was already going. Mist morphed and flowed across the stage as LEDs on the amps glowed like signals from distant planets. Then the band took the stage. Slowly. They pulled out notes and let them linger and shift within the shifting fog. Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar took center stage. He spread his fingers as his guttural post-Tibetan chants merged with the wall of noise.

I lifted my camera and shot a few photos in between waves of fog. It was impossible to capture anything but black silhouettes, colored lights, fog and that amazing bank of amplifiers. The band played what seemed like a 75 minute song without break. The entire duration consisted of a slow, body-penetrating wave of sound with Attila’s droning chanting barely separating from the reverb and low noise. Quiet insistent synth provided a bed for the sound to land on while periodically eerie horns rose out of the fog.

After a few minutes into the show, I put my camera down and let the music take me. I felt my body and mind separate. I unconsciously opened my arms and held them before me embracing the sound. I spread my fingers to give the sound better access to come into my body. This was not intentional but rather prompted by the sound working on every level of my mind and body consciousness. I reached a heightened state of awareness. Within every single very long note, I heard and felt multitudes of sounds, whispers of variation, cracks within the solid structure. It felt as if the band had torn through the universe, and I discovered what it sounds like beneath the physical world. I was suspended in space and time. I dissolved. Nothing existed but this moment and this sound that occupied my entire body and all my senses. I could not put my arms down.

I looked around me and noticed that most of the small audience was doing the same. We were all in a trance. Many had their arms open. Their eyes riveted on the nothingness that was everything coming from the stage.

O’Malley periodically would slip across stage and change some of the effects on the floor reminding us that this was sound being created largely by guitars filtered through electronics and amplification. Towards the end of the show, Attila took the stage wearing a costume made of shattered mirrors emanating the shattered reflection of self, materiality, perception, and identification. The band stripped themselves entirely of identification and through the mesmerizing transformative sound allowed the audience to also lose identification. We became ether, undefined substance, life experienced in its most primordial organic form yet synthesized literally through manipulation of sound and instruments.

None of this could have happened if the music was fast or short, or even if it was music. There was no toe tapping. No singing along. Barely even a head bob. It was like jumping into a black hole and feeling the texture of indescribable space, and that effect can only happen with time. It’s a long slow soak. We simmer in the sound until we are transformed and fall deep inside the dark sublime walls of the other side.

This is music as a revolutionary act. This is music that resists the market, resists the package, resists labels of all variety, and resists structure through one singular structure. This is not metal. This is music without boundaries, and music that actually changes the shape of existence. Like any revolutionary act, it requires suspension of attachment. It requires ripping through the fabric of the established order and throwing convention to the wind to access it. I let go and in letting go, I found a part of myself that could not be articulated or seen – the part that connects with the ephemeral world of spirit.

When the concert ended, the band members removed their hoods and raised their hands in solidarity, smiling in this euphoric moment which they facilitated . . . for those willing to accept it, which I was.

I left the show stunned and euphoric. My entire body was humming. It was the most physical full body music experience of my life. I hummed for days. I realized that the after-effect of the live Sunn O))) experience was functioning very much like a cat’s purr for me. Seeing Sunn O))) made me physically purr, and cats purr to regulate themselves and heal. I can say that this experience helped heal me, not just on a personal level but in coming to terms with living in the universe. Everything looks and feels different now. I touched freedom inside creative expression.

Stepping into this kind of experience, I am always reminded of the magic and wonder that humans are capable of, especially in a world overrun by violence, hatred, war, starvation, and ecologic devastation. Underneath the fabric of the material world, there is something undefinable that manifests in creative spirit which in turn connects to a larger unseen and undefined universe. People have been conditioned to be desensitized to an alternative sensory world. In a material consumer culture dictated by the 2.5 minute attention span, not many people are willing to try to find the way inside the wall of sound that a band like Sunn O))) offers. People are largely conditioned to accept what is familiar and comfortable rather than take a leap into unknown and uncharted territories. I am more than happy to walk through the door that Sunn O))) opens inside their transcendent wall of sound, and I thank them for opening it.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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