Secrecy surrounds the release of Sunn O)))‘s latest opus Life Metal (Southern Lord Records), aimed for a limited release on Record Store Day. Who can blame them? With albums by megastars falling victim to hacks and illegal leaks, it’s frustrating but somewhat understandable to be reviewing a product after it’s initial release. Whatever the strategy an epic journey is guaranteed and, with four tracks spanning seventy minutes, the album doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
The magnificently-titled ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ kicks us off: the whinny of a beastly substitute soon dwarfed by O’Malley and Anderson‘s crushing, elongated strings. Gradually, tantalisingly, elements of melody are delivered: the throaty squeals of lead guitar and lightly chanted verses, the latter beautifully delivered by long-time collaborator Hildur Guðnadottir and calming the mind of the eight-legged warrior. Those lead spikes soar to the skies, sending sharp scratches down that space between the shoulder blades, and again this mostly unflinching template finds a way to flick the switch labeled ‘Involuntary Euphoria’.
‘Troubled Air’ sees further amendments to the usual structure: piano and synth keys, chiming against the triangles and pipes, decorate the early and centre stages and give an oddly medieval feel to the growling monochrome underbelly, which swells to a wonderful crescendo at the coda. ‘Aurora’, meanwhile, shows some of the most impressive discipline yet exhibited by this enigmatic duo. A succession of riff and bass growls being only briefly lightened by whispered harmonies, it’s an ultra-slow-motion appearance of multi-coloured heat painting the night sky. A true challenge for the listener’s powers of endurance, those with the ability to immerse themselves in such dissonance will be rewarded by the eventual display of sheer, fulminating mass.
Closer ‘Novae’ initially shows more activity if not melody, Low-end chords and notes bellowing from the guitars in fine procession. It’s twenty-five minutes long, however, and if you’re not able to transport your mind’s eye to the site of stars exploding and slowly dying, the varying levels of hum will have begun to degrade your patience before the mid-section oscillations arrive to wake you from your catatonic state…only for an extremely long, atonal cello recital to put you back under.
In all honesty this is something of a comedown after 2015’s majestic Kannon (Southern Lord Records): that album had a level of phosphorescence bleeding from its monotony that’s too often missing here. It remains one hell of a feat to make a sound as ground-shaking as this, and for it to captivate as often as it does. If Life Metal was twenty minutes shorter it might even be a deeply emotional, life-affirming journey: But seventy minutes of such uneventful noise in one sitting can be an overwhelming struggle when nothing much lifts above an ‘A’ chord. The composition always impresses but sometimes SunnO))) need to find a limit.
6 / 10