Barbican, London, Tues 21st March
Waiting near me outside the auditorium, two vikings in black hoodies babbled away to one another in German. Every so often one would say “Throbbing Gristle”, they'd then drop back into German. Then, a minute or so later, one would say “Throbbing Gristle” again. While a sign on the door above them warned of impending “high level sound levels and dense haze”.
I figured I was in the right place.
This marked my second chance to see legendary drone metal band Sunn 0))), and while they inevitably don't have quite the same impact when not filling a small seafront club with their sonic force, so powerful as to be physical, they remain an unmissable live experience.
Vocalist Attila Csuhar opened the gig with some liturgical chanting, which he'd then mix in with more guttural tones - part-way to throat singing. This section did, if truth be told, go on a bit. In fact a fairly sizeable segment of the audience didn't show up until it was ending, presumably forewarned and forearmed.
But as that was the gig's only weak point, let's focus on another aspect. Despite the band's signature uniform of monk habits and customary banks of dry ice, I don't think the intent here is really sacrilegious – like the sonic equivalent of an inverted crucifix. In fact it's nearer to... well religious, those mixed-chant vocals more intended to compare than contrast.
Despite the band having arisen from the black metal scene, despite their almost fearsome reputation as the heaviest of them all, their sound isn't really oppressive. Like a lot of religious music, it's actually elevating. Rather than relying on any kind of shock effect, it's involving and even contemplative. To the point where even us non-religious types find it takes us out of ourselves. It induces a kind of aum state without any of the dippy New Age shit.
For one thing, they don't let that heavy tag hold them down and are quite happy to break with expectation. In a lengthy mid-section the wall-of-noise guitars walk right offstage and a quite plaintive trombone starts up. And if sludge metal has already been made a genre, I suppose there's no reason why we can't also have sludge jazz.
Also, and more importantly, there's a solidity – a kind of one-ness - to their sound. It's pretty much pitched at the point where black metal becomes drone. It's difficult and at times impossible to pick out individual instruments. Even the keyboards, which are sometimes prominent, play neither above or along to the guitars – they more play along to the resonances between them.
While heavy rock tends to be blues music with added volume Sun 0))) seem unrooted in rock tradition. In fact in the programme they complain of how once-normal listening practices have been undermined in the past forty years, like a near-half century is just a bump in the road. Most noticeable by it's absence, with neither bass nor drums there's none of the release of rock music, none of the sense that music's a means to let it all out.
In fact, despite their strong overlaps with noise music, they demonstrate how rockist the noise scene can be. They don't just dress like monks, they're as disciplined as them. Though the singer stands to the front, neither he nor the others gives off any impression of individual personality. Even when they sup a beer on stage, a single bottle is passed between the lot of them like a sacrament.
Founder member Stephen O’Malley has described their sound as “more raga than … rock. And despite the fact that the walls were literally shaking from volume, it was actually quite a blissed out, psychedelic session.” (Though speaking of a particular album.) While in the programme Csihar compares it to “the music of the plants, and that's why it's so slow and enormous”. Which seems reminiscent of Andrew Marvell's old poem “My vegetable love should grow/ Vaster than empires and more slow”.
Let's jump from Marvell to Elvis Costello, who once sang “The truth can't hurt you, it's just like the dark/ It scares you witless, then in time you see things clear and stark”. He could have been thinking of Sunn 0))). There's a kind of double trajectory afoot. What might originally hit the listener as a sonic onslaught slowly transforms itself into something serene, pummelling fists morphing into massaging hands.
Moreover, from what I know of the earlier albums, that also fits the history of the band - they were more abrasive and discordant at the beginning. Which also fits the history of Earth, enough of an influence for Sunn 0))) to name themselves in a kind of paralleling tribute. Or the way the doom metal of Sleep transformed into the trance of Om. To get to the light, it seems you need to go through the dark tunnel.
And that half-transfer, half-dichotomy is something you often see in art evoking the sublime. What first appears to you as an overwhelming, pulverising force soon comes to feel like rejoining where you really belong. Perhaps, were Turner alive today, he'd have ditched his oils and joined a drone metal band.
SUN RA ARKESTRA
Con Club, Lewes, Wed 29th March
”They say history repeats itself. But that's his story. My story doesn't repeat itself. Why should it? My story is endless”
Last time I was at this venue, to see Jah Wobble, I was committing myself to print in saying I am no fan of jazz. So what do I do but head back for what's unambiguously a jazz gig?
But then of course this is no regular gig. It's not a matter of public record how Herman Poole Blount's parents reacted when he told them he'd teleported to Saturn to commune with the spirits there, and been told to devote himself to music as a means to solve the problems of the Earth. They most probably thought it was an elaborate excuse to drop out of college, which was the first thing he was insisting on doing. But he went through with it, changing his name to Sun Ra in the process, and throughout his life stuck to that story and to his guns. (His discography is this big.) He was more or less to jazz what Lee Perry was to reggae, where there's no point trying to separate what was genius from what was lunacy.
And if Sun Ra himself ceased having even a tangential connection to this Earth back in '93, the Arkestra continues under the direction of Marshall Allan. (Who is himself 92, having played with the Arkestra for 57 years.) After two successive sell-outs, they ended up playing a three-night residency, of which I caught the middle event. Living up to their “my story is endless” promise they played for over two and a half hours, a completely different set from the first night, and cheerily announced at the end the third night would be something different again.
Those freak free impro days now seem done and dusted, with band members even sporting music stands. The set most matched Wikipedia's' Philadelphia period, a kind of cosmic jazz to match the cosmic soul of the times. (The era the classic 'Space is the Place' album came from.)
And in fact the downside of the gig wasn't it falling into indigestible squonk but becoming tasteful enough to have safely ported onto an episode of Jools Holland. There were, I confess, points where it lost my interest.
But the highlights were... well, befitting Sun Ra's cosmic aspirations I'd have to say higher than sky high. Despite their daunting reputation, the Arkestra have a strong melodic sense and the ability to form into a powerful rhythm section. For a jazz band, they sure are funky! The brass in particular seemed able to play along with the line, then each instrument find a way to veer off into it's own thing while still holding that line aloft. (And to think I once found Led Zeppelin tight but loose!)
The best tracks, for me at least, started off with a vocal – somewhere between a repeated spoken phrase and a chant. These were often cosmic aphorisms which would probably seem platitudinously New Agey out of context, but in context were like a foot sliding into a slipper. (And besides, the one quoted up top does have it's appeal.) The ensemble would then work around them, in a manner not entirely unlike Steve Reich's penchant for finding music phrases in the cadences of the spoken word.
Perhaps the main thing is convey is that it's not chin-stroking music to chew on, it's joyous, exuberant and energising. If it doesn't quite teleport you to Saturn you can almost feel your feet lifting from the ground. Space really is the place.
This was from the first night...
And after seeing Sunn 0))) and Sun Ra, of course I then went to see Sun Kil Moon again. No, actually it was...
YAMATO: THE DRUMMERS OF JAPAN
Brighton Dome, Thurs 30th March
After seeing the Kodo drummers some three years ago, I am it seems becoming something of a regular for Japanese drum ensembles at the Dome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were many similarities between the two, above all the same combination of absolute discipline and unleashed frenzy. And it demonstrates what a timbral range can exist just from different varieties of drum.
But Kodo's art had been very much a martial one. You could imagine them arising as one at six AM on their South Pacific island, and starting their morning practice by twenty past. They were intent on what they were doing, single-minded to the point of being cult-like.
Yamato are much more showbizzy, sporting bright costumes over uniform black vests. There's stage antics, visual gags, acrobatic playing, ample audience participation and even individual personalities emerging from the players. At times it did become so circusy I half expected a guy with a moustache to come on, and hold a chair up to a mangy old lion.
But we're probably best taking that as description rather than criticism. Being structured unashamedly like a show gives things an ever-relentless dynamic. They barely stopped even for applause. Perhaps they had less musicality than Kodo, but they so successfully keep you watching you don't particularly notice at the time.
My favourite moment was when the drummers were joined by the Japanese banjo. (Which probably has some special name, which probably isn't “the Japanese banjo”.) It was an unusual pairing, which they were really able to make work.
This TV appearance is from some while back, but gives a good flavour for what they do...