I intend to, this summer, constuct a photography series on people in their messy rooms. Not dirty, mind you, no grime, just mess. Just stuff, everywhere. There is something sublimly beautiful about these livingspaces, everyone absolutely unique. As if you put a bomb in the center of someones personality and blew it up across the walls. As if their brain was broken in to peices and possetions and expanded. And that's kind of how I feel about Why?'s first album, the music of heinously disheveled and poorly upkept rooms. Incredibly lucid explosive residue.
There's a lot of talk of hip hop concerning Yoni Wolf. At first I didn't hear it. Though granted at first I thought a lot of different things about Oaklandazulasylum, or I didn't know what to think. A slew of bizzare outsider folk that sounded like it was recorded on the floor of someones bedroom, strung out, two AM. Jumping from one subject to another, melodic lines just ending, songs sounding so cut up that my head spun.
Yet listening to it now I hear something so different, a kind of genius-through-schizophrenia. Each song tightly composed in where the guitar ends abruptly and is sharply replaced by a micro beat, where he jumps ship from bizarre nonsense subject to bizarre nonsense subject. His lyrics are a random associative playground, occasionally jagged to a point, occasionally relatable and humanistic.
Sometimes there are even real songs, catchyness, figuring out his young love is a lesbian. The sharp build and fingerpicked tense-calmness of Early Whitney. "I swear I'll write soon." The Berkeley uncertainty, lack of clear narrative. Sometimes you even know whats going on, but not often. You know something is left out. The explaination withheld, but you get the feeling that every one of these words mean something. There is no faux-poetic arbitrariness. Every line has meaning behind it.
The album ends with a track so slight it feels hidden. It feels my own. Absolute in it's electronic minimalism, about how he won't make it much longer. About how he just doesn't believe he can live until he gets old.
just been trying to keep my cool
fly too high
As time has worn on, I’ve found myself gravitating more and more towards the doom end of the metal spectrum, to the point where I’m willing to proclaim it my favorite subgenre in said spectrum. The louder, heavier, slower and longer the better(that’s what she said!). There’s very little in this little burg of extreme music that I won’t listen to-from the hard rock leanings of The Sword and Red Fang to the petrifying death attack of My Dying Bride and Ramesses to the just generally brain numbing stupidity of Bongzilla, it’s rare that I’ll find something that doesn’t appeal to me in some fashion or another.
More recently, I’ve found myself becoming drawn towards that most challenging of subterranean scenes, drone doom. Earth’s Special Low Frequency Version was the originator of the genre and has rocketed into my top 100 with startling speed. Likewise, Boris has plopped out a few masterpieces in this regard, and from what I’ve heard of them, Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine sounds exactly my speed. It seems that there’s just one last gate I have yet to crash through in fully understanding what is arguably one of the most intimidating types of music that is, and that gate is Sunn O))). Unfortunately, it’s a barrier that I don’t think will come down anytime soon.
I’ve been trying to figure out precisely what it is that pushes me away from Sunn O))), besides the obvious reason of having to type out that fucking name every time I bring them up. Interestingly, the guitarist for the group, Stephen O’Malley, plays for several other done bands that I’ve very much enjoyed, but time after time Sunn O)))’s appeal eludes me. There are two reasons I’ve come up with as to why they don’t work for me, and both are reasons that make the band somewhat antithetical to the ethos of drone as I personally understand it.
The first reason is that Sunn O))) play all of their songs in chunks. They are long chunks, mind you, generally no shorter than ten minutes but no longer than twenty five. Complaining that not-quite-half-an-hour is too short is something that only a total crazy person would do, and yet here I sit in my tinfoil hat, trying to get the moon on speed-dial. One of the ways I view drone doom is as the warped, demented twin brother of Romantic classical music. Both aim to be awe-inspiring in their scope and ambition, but where classical is technically intricate and ornate, drone is stagnant and repetitious. Whereas this era of classical attempts to achieve intensity through majesty, drone attempts the same feat through monolithic singularity. It attempts to drown the listener with a subtly morphing unity of Cyclopean ambition. In order to achieve this, drone doom is best delivered as a single song, generally 45 minutes or longer. If the listener is more willing to commit themselves for a long duration of time, the music has a greater chance of solidifying itself as a Goliath that demands total attention. Anything shorter and the song loses its power: a titanic epic simply turns into a man playing the same riff for far too long to be interesting and not long enough to have any sense of grandeur.
The second important reason why I think Sunn O))) is second to its contemporaries is because they don’t fully embrace the total minimalism that the genre needs to make itself so alien and captivating. Since Flight of the Behemoth, Sunn O))) has introduced elements such as classical orchestrations and intricate vocal arrangements to pile on top of their gigantic riffs. You might think that such flourishes would help keep the music from growing stale, but on the contrary, I think it strips away what makes the genre so appealing: That breathtaking, inescapable sense of immersion in utterly foreign and beguiling musical territory evaporates the moment I have something else to compare it to. For the same effect that Monoliths and Dimensions is aiming for, I could listen to the orchestral works of Krzysztof Penderecki. For the total horror of Black One I could get similar satisfaction from a Nurse With Wound album. If I want to hear the overwhelming, ear shattering guitar intensity that Earth’s Special Low Frequency Version offers, however, I don’t have any other alternatives. And if the sweeping buildup and haunting crescendo of Boris’ Flood were reliant on anything but three people squeezing every last drop of heavy out of their instruments, I wouldn’t have much reason to listen to that, either.
My point, overall, is this: I don’t dislike Sunn O))). But that said, I have no reason to listen to them. As a drone band, their contemporaries match them with a far greater level of commitment to the form. As ambient horror, many avant-garde classical and industrial groups have already beaten them to the punch at perfecting that sickening feeling of dread which is so necessary to making their music worthwhile. I don’t need both delivered at the same time, especially when they have the effect of watering each other down.Do you disagree? Of course you do. Tell me why I’m a big fat idiot and Sunn O))) is the raddest.
Southern Lord; 1998, 2008/October 6, 2003
This review--more of a shootout, really--has been a long time coming.
My entry for Things Viral had been sitting on my computer in semi-completed form since around November of last year, when we were still up to our eyeballs with work on our decade-end list. I wrote an extremely short blurb for it, under minimal protest, that I felt would adequately scratch the surface of an album I really wanted to dig into and flesh out every gory detail of in this column as one of the most extreme (TO TEH MAXX!!1) musical experiences that would ever be featured here.
Then sometime in the interim, Chris introduced me to Burning Witch. And well... into the shitbin my old review went.
Before going further some background is required on these two titans of the Southern Lord label, and how they ended up following similar evolutionary paths to somewhat different conclusions. Burning Witch is the earlier of the two bands, active from 1995 to 1998 and featuring the formidable talents of guitarist Stephen O'Malley, the mighty drone lord who would later end up in genre legends SunnO))) and... Khanate, only three years after Burning Witch split up. O'Malley's guitar presence would ultimately define and shape the work of both bands, which otherwise share no members. You can also hear echoes of both bands in SunnO)))'s own album Black One but that has a more obvious black metal aesthetic, whereas the other two walk previously untrodden and very, very scary ground.
Burning Witch is a band I'd often heard described as "apocalyptic," but after listening to weird shit including lots of gutbucket, angst-ridden and low-end pulverizing acts like Melvins, Neurosis, Boris, Meshuggah and Electric Wizard that kind of descriptor gets thrown around enough to lose its meaning. But rest assured, when even jaded ears hear Burning Witch and use that word (usually preceded by various superlative expletives and/or shat pants), they mean every fucking syllable. The 2008 reissue of Crippled Lucifer (Seven Psalms for Our Lord of Light) includes both of their major releases, Towers... (recorded by Steve Albini, so you know it's quality) and Rift. Canyon. Dreams., consolidating ten tracks into about an hour of punishing aural suicide.
This stuff is pure madness--all tortured guitar grind and bass tuned so low that I wonder how the strings even move over crashing, deliberate rhythms that suggest Black Sabbath slowed to about a third of the BPM, spread over tracks that average around eight minutes. But even with O'Malley's guitarwork, a balance of dismal, slowly decaying riffs and screeds of noisy feedback (he even pulls off some sick Iommi-worthy trills in "Sacred Predictions"), Burning Witch's sonic palette generally doesn't deviate too far from the doom metal mold. But it doesn't really matter, and here's why:
I don't know which Event Horizon-esque hell dimension their vocalist (who goes by the somewhat lame pseudonym Edgy 59) hails from, but he is the defining characteristic of Burning Witch, and what elevates them over the standard doom metal outfit. His default mode is an inhumanly horrific, psychotic shriek that just bleeds evil, in a way I've heard no other vocalist do even in other realms of extreme metal--with one possible exception. And just after you start getting acclimated to this, he sings(!) some haunting passages with a strangled midrange wail that might be even more unsettling. He even indulges in creepy little tics, like a witchy cackle in the conclusion of "The Bleeder." The lyrics are the usual harrowing quasi-Satanic imagery you can expect with this sort of material, but it wouldn't fucking matter if it was the opening theme of My Little Pony--Edgy 59's voice would make them deliciously, indescribably terrifying, and leave most vocalists participating in metal as a whole looking like a bunch of tryhard adolescents.
Leaving big shoes to fill, the unit that ultimately continued Burning Witch's legacy was an all-star doom supergroup--two members of OLD, Alan Dubin and James Plotkin, along with the aforementioned O'Malley and Tim Wyskida of Blind Idiot God (who played very different music, but besides the point). Khanate's 2001 album ended up sounding a lot like Burning Witch, even if the sonics were a bit clearer, Dubin's screeches a bit more coherent, the stretches of void between thundering slams a bit more indulged. There were still nods given to the genre signposts, including riffs and a discernible, albeit really goddamn slow tempo. The sound could still be described as metal, just more abstract than the norm.
Things Viral is where the band really defines itself and throws all trappings right out the window from the get go. If Crippled Lucifer was the sound of the world giving up the ghost in a chaotic onslaught of fire and brimstone, Things Viral would be what remained after the sky burned out, the dying fires receded and a new ruined Earth revealed, cold and stripped of all life.
Riffs have completely given way to bleak drones that seem to stretch on for eternities, only to abruptly strike with a single, shuddering chord or passages of expertly conjured feedback. Wyskida's percussion is more impressionistic than anything--there is no steady pulse, only the odd crash of a cymbal, the funereal sound of a distant tom, or a sudden rising clamor that punctuates the next jarring assault and ends as soon as it began. The first two tracks don't really have a beginning or end, they simply drift in from the darkened fog and hover inside the listener's head for twenty minutes before fading into the next unobtrusively. "Dead" (NSFW!) is really the only track out of four that sounds like it was at all composed--at 9:28 it's also the shortest on the album by far.
Alan Dubin is an interesting study of contrasts with Edgy--the former is as perfectly mixed, clear and comprehensible as the latter isn't. Shrieks emanate from the core of his body in long terrible streams, hanging on every grim word for seconds at a time like his life depends on it. His murderous stream-of-consciousness lyrics are the only accompaniment to this sonic wasteland, and his fractured narrative presents truly disturbing revelations ("pieces of us in my hands, on the floor.... in my pockets"). Edgy's Jekyll-and-Hyde act evokes imagery of some poor bastard being slowly vivisected and eaten by an ancient creature out of Lovecraftian horror; Dubin's voice is that of the shadowy being witnessing the spectacle. And that being is trying to drive you insane. Have I mangled enough metaphors yet?
So... which is better? Who wins?
Tough call. I think the average listener (right, like any of those would be listening to this shit) would probably enjoy and identify with Crippled Lucifer more, as it has actual riffs, a little more variety and hints of structure coupled to a general metal aesthetic. Edgy's vocals render the words mostly incomprehensible which for people who giggle while reading/listening to metal lyrics might be an important factor. However, musically Things Viral is far more groundbreaking, and--in this author's opinion--even more depressive and frightening in its abject nihilism. The performances also feel a little more focused, even as they stretch over ten minutes.
Verdict? At the risk of copping out, these are the Alpha and Omega of this genre, and you can't fully appreciate the power of each until you listen to both. So if you have the testicular fortitude and a couple hours or so to kill, do it.