In an attempt to glean some wisdom and guidance in this endeavor as a music critic, and to stave off the boring stretches of powerlessness during the hurricane, I have been obsessively reading the latter Lester Bangs anthology "Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste" and goddamn, he is such a great writer, even if he writes about the same dam,n thing all the time. If he'd gotten a nickel every time Iggy Pop or Lou Reed were mentioned, he could've paid that landlady always banging on his door in the background. But anyway, the wisdom. The subtext of Lester's writing is the increasing dehumanization of us all, and rock stars were about all we had left keeping us from gleefully getting the chips implanted and shuffling off to get our cafeteria trays filled with pablum. He did not buy into any infallibility of their actions, or cut them any moral slack like lovers of writers do (I mean, how can William Burroughs be a sanctioned thing when in practice, there is strong evidence that he was a child molester that shot his wife?) but he did allow for a new breed of rock star worship, one that looks to these innocent minions of dark forces to show us the way. Its like how in "Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth" Buckminster Fuller went into great detail explaining that the pirates were the last actualized men that controlled their sphere. For Lester, the insect distance in Lou Reed and the animal havoc of Iggy Pop were models for how to survive when the hammer comes down. For me, its the artists that create their own thing outside of the light. Make their own music how they want, start their own label, develop their own myths that are my models. To me Robin Hood would've been so much more successful had he not been such a glory hound.
My rock star worship has a wandering eye, and in the past couple years it has zeroed in on the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Julian Cope, Steve Albini, Lee Scratch Perry, all denizens of the alchemists lab, crafting magic off the radar (OK maybe not Tweedy, he's a big camera ho, but I love him anyway) and now my Cupid's arrow is aimed at the heart of Stephen O'Malley. Graphic designer by trade, his Southern Lord label which deals in the blackest of metal and reissues of lost classics is one of the best put-together outfits going. The album designs, especially the logos (a crucial part of metal) are impeccable, showing reverence to the classics of 80's logohood with a calligrapher's touch. His own band, Sunn O))), derived from the Sunn amps logo, even has such a typographically brilliant name that the logo actually appears in print. The image of them in the robes as druidic monks perfecting their own breed of sub-darkness through extreme means (which I'll get to in a moment) is awesome. And on top of all that floss and packaging and stuff I normally hate, the band kicks ass.
On Black One, the band pulls forms a wrecking crew of pulsar grade sub harmonics, where the guitar and bass and keyboards and whatever other eye of newt thrown in is reduced to a thick inky broth, flowing from your headphones like lava (I suggest headphones for the best Sunn O))) listening experience, unless you have some seriously good woofers on your hi-fi) engulfing your brain. The majority of the album is without percussion, just undulating pulses of bass distortion, interjected by a cast of Black Metal crooners giving their finest retching incantations. The first track "Sin Narvana" follows the live practice of Black Metal acts, of having an airy spooky instrumental track before kicking into the ritual killing, and this is a fine example of that sub-sub-genre, with its backward banshees spinning about what sound like the biggest didgeridoo in hell (and that is where all those didgeridoo players wind up). Where you might expect a 1-2-3-4 at the end of it, it opens up the funeral dirge of "It Took The Night To Believe" with locust-violin-guitars forming the elemental base while Wrest, throat scraper for Lurker of Chalice and Leviathan, bellows his cosmic dismay against the thunder. In fact, the climatology description become even more apparent in the nearly ambient "Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)" where the vocals are forced to strain against the winter and Gabriel's horn signalling the end. I might suggest a horn section on the next Sunn O))) outing, should they be looking for my input.
The album continues on this glacial tack, with a more obvious guitar riff (albeit slowed down to hypothermia levels) on "Orthodox Caveman" and a weirdly pretty piano echo running through "Cry For the Weeper" as a stampede of fuzz and power and vibration coming from the center of the universe. Here is the magic of Sunn O))) for me: They manage to combine effectively the rockstar egregiousness pushed to the logical conclusion that is inherent to Black Metal with an undeniable distillation of the sheer physicality of metal to its basest recognizable form. To me its the most elegant music devoid of schmaltz, and in many ways perfect.
The capper on this black iceberg is the 16 minute "Bathory Erzsebet" which contains upturns the BM tradition of the sadistic publicity stunt and photo shoot into reality. They took Malefic, the creative force behind my favorite BM studio project Xasthur, ensconced him in the robes, and then locked him in an actual coffin, set with microphone in the back of a rented hearse, and let the tape roll, giving some of the more chilling sonics available once Malefic's resolve starts to break down and begins (I'm assuming) losing his shit because he's locked in a coffin. The low hum provided by the group and the distortion on the vocals makes it hard to tell what is theatrical and what is real, and that is the shit. That's where the rock n roll rubber meets the conceptual road, pushing the tradition of Iggy rolling in glass and Jim Morrison wagging his weener at Miami onto the next, more dangerous stage of development. Once can assume that Malefic was in no actual harm here, but the harsh reality of it is nonetheless very real, despite what filters it is passing through. And therein lies the brilliance of this band and the reason for my idol worship of Stephen O'Malley and I bid you adieu as I let the final minutes of this CD joyously emulsify my soul into nothingness. See you in hell.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com