Sun 16th December 2007
Support from EARTH
It appears that no band divides opinion on the ninehertz forums as much as Sunn o))) do and, to be honest, it's easy to see why. On the one hand, as any of their near fanatical following will tell you, Sunn o))) push the musical envelope and ask questions of their audience (intentionally or not), challenging them to endure the noise that they make. Their level of relative success and exposure can only be a good thing in terms of the influence of the alternative on the mainstream.
On the other hand, detractors complain of self indulgence, indifference (at best - blatant fleecing at worst) to fans, pretentiousness, laziness, lack of talent/ideas. One may attribute this to the mercurial ascent of the Sunn o)))/Southern Lord star in recent times. Not that there's a problem with that. Hydra Head are currently experiencing a similar renaissance with Jesu and Isis to markedly less bitching than the Southern Lord posse have to contend with. However, Southern Lord appears to have made an impact off the back of some, frankly, frightfully poor black metal, fancy packaging and the novelty of some dudes in robes making hoover noises. What is there not to be suspicious of under these circumstances?
Anyway, detailed dichotomy and wild speculation will have to wait for the impending column I'm planning on being offered in the Guardian's arts pages. This is about the event of playing itself and the sense of occasion is palpable from the outset of the evening - box office and queueing fuck ups offering a timely reminder that we are here and should feel lucky to be so.
First on and devoid of any kind of pomp whatsoever is Earth. A shame to see such an influential act so low down on a bill full of people who were at their mothers' teats when Earth were laying the blueprint for the headliners' future sound. Playing exclusively from the Hex album and expanded live to a five piece, the sound is fatter and more rounded than on record. This offers an easy and satisfying listen but losing the fragility and vulnerability that makes the album such an essential departure from the drone template. It is this fullness that on occasion detracts from the epic frontier soundscapes and brings to mind an extended and, dare I say, lumbering jam of Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross". On the whole though, this is the sound of a band exploring their wild roots and musical heritage and is a refreshing alternative to post rock's waves of fragile beauty/squalling feedback paradigm. Just a shame to see the progenitors playing second fiddle to the copyists.
Boris send me to the fucking bar with the first quarter hour of their set. This is absolutely shit. I'm not even going to try and pull something positive from this initial part of the set. Fret wankery ensues. Eyes are closed, heads are shaken and I start to feel a little bilious. Sub Satriani ear abuse. Boring as fuck. Anyway, predictably enough, it proves to be a dirty ruse for some crazy slow dirty riffing that ensues when they finally pull their fingers out of their collective bottoms. It's nice to see a band having fun when they play and Boris seem to be having an ace time. Well, drummer, Atsuo seems to be having an ace time, flicking out the horns, doing a stage dive and generally pummeling the cunt out of his gong. Everyone else looks well miserable. Oh well, sorry I fucking came. Another problem with Boris is that they're simply not interesting enough to carry Takeshi's weak and infrequent vocal performance. Boris failed to get me freaking out in the way that their past shows and records hinted torward. Utter shit for the most, brilliant in parts. Unfortunately, the shit bit couldn't even be atoned for if they made me King of the World and had angels blow my balls and feed me burgers all day.
You lose Boris. You lose!
Sunn o))) are up next and the assembled (and incredibly varied) throng are basically already sold on this shit for the most part. This isn't to say that it's bad. It's just the formula's not going to fail tonight. Nah, it is what it is. Dudes in robes, Volume, Bass notes so deep you can feel your giblets quiver, Bloke dressed as a tree whispering into the mic, plenty of audience participation as the sea of assorted horns, fists and claws attested. Just panto innit. Tis the season to be jolly and these merry men are here to kickstart your festive celebrations. True, the frequencies could compromise the structural integrity of most of North London and it sounds as if there's an inflection (however slight) of neo folk to this jam (I didn't recognise anything that was going on, implying that it's either band new or real old), but this is all about spectacle and (for the cynics out there) flogging off limited edition tour 12"s to keep the wheel turning.
O'Malley and Anderson seem to have kissed and made up after the alleged handbags at ATP and their ranks are swelled by a double bass player, two keyboard/synth types and Australian minimalist chap, Oren Ambarchi on guitar. The jam itself is more restrained and less raw than the black metal inflected tracks on Black 1 and the eclecticism and experimentalism of the White albums, OO Void and the Demos. It is more lush in sound and an altogether calmer and more folky affair, yet still heavy and played electrically.
I think this show is pretty much dependent on the mindset of the attendee. Go there hating and it will be the most intolerable fucking bullshit ever. Go there determined to lap it up and you'll find something in there that's familiar and favourable. If you go to be entertained, then you will be albeit for only a while before it starts to grow a bit stale. You see, although the effect is sedative, it's far less hypnotic (due to the whispering hitting the most easily annoyed part of the brain) than a physical tiredness brought on by the endless droning and sub-frequencies. Still, a fucking bastard of a noise and that deserves, at least some props.
After interminable buggering about behind a black curtain with dry ice and stuff Sunn o))) and Boris take the stage together to perform bits of Altar. It seems that Boris have an effect of focusing Sunn o))) and the set is broken down into four tracks, covering about an hour. The first of these sees the group fronted by a chanteuse (possibly Jesse Sykes, she was wearing a robe and it was dark) to run through "The Sinking Belle". Again, with the previous set, it's down to the individual to define the spectacle. If you think it's bollocks, you probably not going to change your mind after watching the collaborative show either, although this set does display a more accessible sound and song times are shaved down to keep the interest "piqued" (I guess). At times, it feels contrived but that's just the nature of the beast that is theatre, darling.