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Concert Review: Sunn O)))
Famed drone/doom sonic devastators Sunn O))) treat Philadelphia to a performance of religious proportions. Photos by Julia Aguilar.
Thin, wispy ribbons of white smoke snaked through the cracks in the Union Transfer’s front doors on Wednesday night (Sept. 5th), minute harbingers of the sonic devastation that was about to begin. Within the packed concert hall, the smoke was so thick that I could see barely a few feet in front of me, with concert goers slowly emerging and fading into thick plumes of smoke machine-generated vapor. As I made my way to the front, I could taste the chlorine-like mist wafting by, making my fellow concert goers appear as ghostly figures wandering a foggy moor. On stage, a towering wall of amplifiers and a few microphone stands could be made out, like spectral totems waiting to be called to life. The murky hall was thick with anticipation, and the music hadn’t even begun yet. Such are the aesthetics of a Sunn O))) show.
Before the first note was struck or the band even took the stage, Sunn O)))’s presence was felt throughout the Transfer; it almost seemed unfair to T.O.M.B. and fellow Southern Lord label mates Dead in the Dirt to have to open for the sonic duo, as the cacophonous black metal and straightedge grindings quickly faded like the crowd amongst the fog. The crowd cheered briefly as the lights began to dim, but fell completely silent again by the time they were out, the concert hall dense with smoke and anticipatory sweat. At first, it was difficult to even tell if Sunn O))) had taken to the stage. And then the first note struck.
It was more of a tone, really, than an actual note. A low, creeping hum emanated from the golden speaker fronts of the towering wall of Sunn amplifiers (after which Sunn O)))’s name and logo are fashioned). I could feel the drone of the bass resonating in my chest, quivering my bones where I stood, as the lights ever so slightly were raised. Three hooded figures could be made out on stage; founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley (guitars, bass and pedals) were at opposite ends of the stage, making wide, sweeping strokes on their strings. Between majestic strums, O’Malley and Anderson pointed their guitars skyward, the pegs on the heads of their guitars catching what little light was in the room, sending silver beams cutting through the smoke. Touring/live member Steve Moore shuffled slowly behind his moog synthesizer, adding to the growing rumblings reverberating from the stage.
As the band continued to weave their sonic symphony, what looked like a phantasmal priest of the occult walked slowly through the shadows towards the mic stand. Live vocalist Attila Csihar, adorned in monk-like regalia, clutched the mic in one hand, whilst his other grasped what looked to be a mouth harp. It was here that Sunn O))) got their most ‘metal,’ bridging the gap between the drone/noise dirge and more doom-laden, drawling rock songs. Csihar, wearing a twisted mold of wax and latex (created by Egyptian mask maker Nader Sadek), uttered throaty murmurs into the mic, pressed against the melting-candle mouth of his mask. Csihar and the band near-grooved for a time, recalling some of Sunn O)))’s more doom rock influences, before O’Malley and co. set aside their instruments to allow Csihar what could only be called a vocal solo. As the guitars and moog drew back to a low hum of feedback, Csihar seemed overcome with with an otherworldly force, demonically chattering into the microphone, pulling away at times to gently tap the mic with his hellish harp. The gratings and rapping of amplified metal-on-metal pierced the eerie silence of the hall, feedback crackling all the while.
After Csihar’s scat session from hell, he and the band settled back into more groove-laden drone rock, which swelled into a clamorous eruption of feedback by the end of the set; O’Malley and Anderson twirled their guitars by the necks to and fro in front of the speakers, letting the static reverberate the strings. The electric burial hymn twirled and spiraled into a sort of free-drone-rock that rose to a sonic pinnacle. And with that, the set was over. O’Malley, Anderson and the rest of the group pulled back their dark hoods to reveal their smiling bearded faces, waving to the crowd and clasping their hands together to thank the audience. The de-cloaked Sunn O))) thanked the crowd again before exiting the stage, a quartet that for roughly 90 minutes had been transformed into sonic priests. As I made my way towards the front doors of the Transfer, the crowd around me began to dissipate like the artificial smoke meeting the night air. I felt lost, near stumbling after scarcely having moved from the moment Sunn O)))’s set began. As the taste of chlorine gradually left my mouth, I could hear the muffled utterance of the crowd around me, as if spoken from the bottom of lake. Even amidst the incoherent exclamations of the throng, I could make out the mesmerized tone of each attendee; some bewildered, some elated, but all transfixed by the witching sounds of the unearthly quartet.