Find us on Facebook!

To keep updated like our page at:

Or on Twitter:

Or E-mail us at:

Sunday 7 April 2024

A View From The Back Of The Room: Sunn O))) (Live Review By Dan Bradley)

Sunn O))), Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter, Marble Factory, Bristol 31.03.2024

The pleasant stroll from Bristol Temple Meads station to the Marble Factory, with bright blue skies and mild spring weather, couldn’t have been less suited to the bleak abyssal depths of the night ahead. I’d never been to this venue before, and it’s really tucked away behind the station, but I followed the straggle of metal heads weaving their way through the back streets to Sunn’s altar of doom. 

In spite of the cheerful weather, the Marble Factory was perfect. It’s a cold and gloomy Victorian warehouse with bare stone floors, and a cavernous main room ringed by a metallic mezzanine. Solemn liturgical music played over the PA, and when I arrived just after 7, the place was already busy. Hardcore fans had staked their places in front of the stage, which was set up with the duo’s familiar Sunn Henge of towering Sunn-brand cabs and amp heads. 

Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson came out to sound check quickly, dressed in civvies – it’s always novel to spot them before the show without their trademark monk’s cowls and robes – and even without being linked to the PA, the sound was bone-crushingly loud. People, this reviewer included, were scrambling for ear plugs (the last time I saw Sunn, at SWX Bristol in 2019, my mate showed me the decibel meter on his phone hovering between 115dB and 125dB. This is like standing next to a pneumatic drill or a jet engine firing up before take-off, so ear protection is a non-negotiable). 

The show opened with a stripped-down line up from Seattle “spectral folk rock” outfit Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter (8), with Sykes, Phil Wandscher on guitar and Bill Herzog on bass. Downlit in blood red, the three took to chairs set up at the front of the stage, while the headliner’s amps loomed behind them. Their sound is a bewitching brand of dark, minimalist folk music, led by Sykes’ pensive, mournful vocals and strummed acoustic guitar, while Wandscher’s reverb-drenched guitar solos take the vocal melodies and make them soar. I loved Herzog’s bass sound too, deep and warm, letting notes sustain and fill the venue and creating a strong foundation for the melodic interplay between Sykes and Wandscher. 

Unlike some gigs I’ve been in to in Bristol, where people treat bands as a backdrop to their night out and talk loudly through the set, the Marble Factory crowd were attentive, respectful and very appreciative between songs. I suspect this is, in part, as Sunn draws out a particularly introspective crowd who want a certain kind of night, but the openers thoroughly deserved their warm welcome. Towards the end of their final track, subtle feedback crept in at the back of the band mix, which at first seemed like the kind of thing that happens with bands playing at maximal volumes in medium-sized venues. But the feedback continued to build, and build. It quickly went from a bit distracting, to all I could focus on. Had the sound engineer fallen asleep at the sound desk? 

Sykes kept on strumming her guitar, Herzog played his bass lines unfazed, Wandscher was deeply immersed in a melodic solo, all seemingly oblivious. I wasn’t though, as the feedback got so loud and overwhelming, I could feel myself wincing. But then it clicked; this was no accident. Sykes stopped playing and hunched over her guitar, dark hair in her face, while Wandscher stood and turned to his large Fender amp and started hammering the tremolo arm on his guitar, wrenching screeching sounds out of the instrument. The thrumming feedback was now a wall of noise, and Wandscher’s extended solo was electric. This epic end to their set was a perfect nod to the headliners, no doubt based on their almost two-decade relationship (they contributed to the 2006 Sunn and Boris collaboration, Altar), and created a seamless shift from the melancholy sound of The Sweet Hereafter to the aural tsunami that was about to engulf us. 

SUNN O))) (10) shows always begin with the fog machines. Their shows are legendary for a reason; they are less like a concert, and more of a completely immersive art and sound installation that batters the senses for the duration. Once the venue was suitably fogged up, the stage was pretty much invisible. Only those closest to the front could spot the duo when they came out, some whooped in excitement, while those of us at the back had to assume there was something going on in the gloom. You could feel the anticipation in the venue, which was now completely packed out. 

And then Sunn hit the first chord. It’s hard to review a band like Sunn because so much of the experience of seeing them live is being physically shaken by the volume of the guitar drones, and the dissociative state you fall into after a short while. Your entire body from your head to your feet, your bones, your guts, your eyeballs… everything feels like it’s going to be shaken loose, snapped or exploded at any moment. Imagine having your face melted off your skull like an Indiana Jones’ baddie for 75 minutes straight, and you start to understand why this band attract such cultish devotion. 

When I first saw them back in 2019, they were touring their Steve Albini-engineered Life Metal album. This was not only much brighter and euphoric than a lot of their back catalogue, but also required multiple extra musicians on stage to add the necessary organs, synths and, yes, trombone. Having explored the outer limits of doom, drone and meditative music across their 25- year career, Sunn O)) are now revisiting their stripped-back, raw, amp-worshipping roots. The name of this tour, ‘Shoshin Duo’, refers to the Buddhist concept of "Shoshin” or “Beginner’s Mind”, the idea being to return to the guitar and amplification exploration with all preconceptions and knowledge abandoned and replaced by a beginner’s curiosity and wonder. The end result is brutal, bleak, relentless, all-consuming. The light show consisted of three stark globes above the band, each blacked out in the centre like a solar eclipse, with blades of light cutting eerie shapes across the fog. 

At one level, the theatre of this act is tongue in cheek, what with the horror-film levels of fog, the monk’s robes, the stack of amps, the thundering over-the-top guitar drone. But it’s no joke when you’re in the midst of it. With those globes blazing through the murk, it felt like staring into the abyss and sensing it stare back. The show eventually climaxed with strobes, and the drone disintegrating into wild noise, feedback and chaotic sounds torn from their guitars and beastly amps. The duo held their guitars aloft as the crowd threw up the horns. They then laid down their guitars as the drone thundered over us all, raised their hands to the crowd, who all raised theirs in turn. 

It was a moving spectacle, and the kind of communal experience that makes gig-going such an addictive passion. The sound cut out, the lights came up, and O’Malley and Henderson lowered their hoods and waved and bowed to the cheering audience with genuine appreciation that, after so many years, they still get to share their music with such an appreciative crowd. I give this performance a 10 to urge any heavy music fan who has yet to see Sunn live to go check them out – they never disappoint.

No comments:

Post a Comment