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diskant rewind: Etch-a-Sketch Yr Fear of AIDS #4

Posted: January 13th, 2009, by Dave Stockwell

(Originally posted January 2004)

Etch-a-Sketch Yr Fear of AIDS by Dave Stockwell


Metal’s shit, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s just a lot of ugly chest-beating and testosterone thrown around most of the time, and when it’s not, it’s this awful po-faced ‘serious evil’ bollocks. I mean, all that crap about hidden subliminal satanic messages being audible when you play Kiss’ ‘Destroyer’ album or Black Oak Arkansas backwards – what all the cultural commentators neglected to mention was that the only reason you’d play a metal record backwards was because it probably sounded better than going forwards.

And then you’ve got black metal – the prime exponents of such are generally held to be Dimmu Borgir, a band that was once described to me as ‘The Backstreet Boys of metal’. I mean, come on! I spent the entirety of the 90s taking the piss out of people into metal, and its newfound ‘credibility’ hasn’t changed my mind a bit – I still think that Slayer suck shit, despite any protestations from well-meaning friends.

Unfortunately, Southern Lord has managed to blow my theory to pieces in the space of little over a year of exposure to their darkest manifestations. The primary source behind all this can be found in the output of SL’s finest, Sunn0))). Ostensibly SL gurus Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, Sunn0))) is in essence the sound of two massively detuned guitars playing Sabbath riffs at about 20 beats per minute. And that’s pretty much it on their second album ’00-Void’ (their first release ‘The Grimmrobe Demos’ is kind of hard to get hold of); there’re four songs, each around 15 minutes long. No hooks, no discernable versus and choruses, no goddamned drums! Just pure slow-crunching riffs submerged in low-end drones that seem to increase the density of the air in the room you’re in, if you turn the volume up high enough.

As they say themselves, ‘The Sunn0))) mission is to create trance-like soundscapes with the ultimate low end/bottom frequencies intended to massage the listener’s intestines into an act of defecation.’ Joking aside, the beauty of Sunn0))) is their dedication to taking the blueprint established by Dylan Carson’s legendary Earth project and pushing at the boundaries of what you can do with extreme low-end signals created by guitars. On last year’s ‘3: Flight of the Behemoth’, they perfected their guitar-only approach on the first two songs, then invited Merzbow to remix the next couple of tracks, and then put drums and even some vocals all over the climactic closer! Though Masami Akita’s piano samples occasionally sound a little clumsy over such refined noise, the rest of the album is little short of absolutely fabulous. Involving enough to demand your attention at all times, yet droning and repetitive enough to push you into some kind of meditative state, ‘Flight of the Behemoth’ is an hour of pretty much utter bliss if you’re in the mood for it.

So where the hell do you go from there? Well, after Julian Cope started trumpeting their cause loudly enough to be heard on US shores, messrs Anderson and O’Malley roped him into a collaboration for their latest opus ‘White 1’. The opening track, a 25-minute marathon of gloom, is a remarkable departure for Sunn0))). First of all, the distortion has been wound right back to give the sound of occasional clanking guitars far more space to breath, coupled with some seriously ominous rumbling ambience that slowly builds up into lush distortion as the piece progresses. Cope delivers an epic spoken monologue dedicated to ‘Johnny Guitar’ over the top… and if that sounds a little ridiculous, you’d be damned right. It might just be my prejudices playing out, but the poor man from Tamworth doing his best to sound spooky and portentous just ends up sounding hilarious to this hick southerner. So I’m left with a track that is half the best thing Sunn0))) have ever done and half the worst they’ve done by some distance! Bizarre. THEN you get onto the second track, initially with some crazy vocals by Runhild Gammelsæter, and then you reach the point where you’re either going to embrace the fact that Sunn0))) is determined to progress to new tricky depths of dark ambience by radicalising yet further their now well-established distorteddetunedguitars format, or you’re going to ceaselessly criticise everything they do from this point onwards: the fastest riff they’ve ever conjured up (I mean, rather than moving like a slowly collapsing glacier, it’s more like tectonic plate shifts when the shit goes down in LA) emerges murkily from an oily haze… and then a drum machine kicks in, all minimalist kicks and hi-hat splashes. The problem is, the whole thing feels a little rickety as the guitar seems to wobble in and out of time and the drums fade in and out of the mix to cover it up… plus, after getting spoiled by such monumental rushes of sound of previous works, to use a drum machine sounding so close in the mix feels almost counter-intuitive: almost sounding like it was recorded to four-track in your (extremely soundproofed) bedroom. Ah well, the final track is a 17-minute wonder of a sampled guitar clashing with itself played backwards that becomes beautifully mantronic and not a little unsettling as it develops. And that’s another hour of music gone by, sucking your mind under a darkened cloud of dank gloom into a wonderfully sparse and clear environment. As if it needs to be said, pop music it ain’t.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the second reason I kneel at the gates of SL: Stephen O’Malley’s most significant ‘other’ project, Khanate. Also featuring the extraordinary James Plotkin (of Old, the all-conquering phAnTOMSMASHER, and a fair few others) on bass+synth, Tim Wyskida (Blind Idiot God) on drums, and Alan Dubin (also of Old) on vocals, Khanate was formed in 2000 ‘to survive the sorely missed bleak aura of suffering evoked by the departed Burning Witch’. What this entails is some of the least melodic music you’ll ever hear. Y’see, whereas most metal at least has these perceptible riffs and musical progressions (just think of those awful harmonised riffs a la Iron Maiden – ick), Khanate doesn’t have any of that stuff. And whereas Sunn0))) at least has a warmth to its sound and a feeling of the music being an expansive whole, Khanate doesn’t have any of that either. Instead, they play songs slower than Codeine – leaving huge, dread-filled pauses or howling gales of squalling feedback between each slash at a guitar & stab at a cymbal. As if it needs to be said, the guitars are supremely heavy – Plotkin’s bass is especially all-enveloping in the low-end hum of your speakers, and O’Malley’s guitar alternates between low bell tolls and huge washes of distortion to suit the mood. But the most unexpected aspect of Khanate is definitely the ‘vokill’ approach by Alan Dubin – all anguished shrieks, diseased squeals and throat-shredding inflection. You can almost hear Dubin spit blood sometimes, ripping his vocal chords into shreds as he screams such niceties as: ‘want you choked… change, face to blue… sky empty…’ Not for the weak-willed then, and certainly not the kind of album you’d put on at a house party… or even in the company of *anyone* else, come to think of it. This really is music for being alone and full of hatred for absolutely everything. I discovered Khanate’s 2001 self-titled debut album this year, and it accompanied me happily through the summer months, occasionally through headphones – some of the most claustrophobic and alienating experiences I’ve had whilst being out in public. It really is vile in a way that I could only dream most pop music of being.

And then there’s their second full-length: ‘Things Viral’ has only recently been released, and it’s all the elements of the first album pulled even further apart, taken to even greater extremes. As the SL website claims, ‘torturous, snail-like pace makes the debut album sound like speed metal! Extreme audio terrorism.’ Personally, I’m increasingly of the thought that ‘Things Viral’ is something of a masterpiece, requiring some dedication to listening to uncover and decipher all of its machinations and disgusting glory. I love the way that it begins utterly and starkly naked of any distortion or loud dynamics, taking a good few minutes to build up to the first jagged point of engagement with Dubin’s elliptic lyrics, and then a fair few after until you feel the force of Khanate’s music in full blaze. I love the way that the first two tracks are twenty minutes apiece, and that brutal statement of intent. I love the way that verisimilitude has meant that the winter landscape of urban Britain has mirrored the music on this disc – becoming barren, colder, unforgiving and immoveable, and yet there being a fragile beauty in that. I also love the artwork, which may well be Mr O’Malley’s finest hour – have a look at www.ideologic.org to see a select few of his efforts, and make sure you download the MP3s he’s chosen to grant us on his news page.

There is a third axis of black-hearted glory within SL, and this time it comes from Japan in the form of the power trio that is Boris. Now you may or may not have heard of Boris, legendarily in worship of all things Melvins (which I guess is what you get for naming yourself after one of their songs), but unless you’re in possession of all of their records you’d be mistaken in any of your presumptions about them. Boris may have been ultimately influenced in their decision to make music together by Buzz’n’Dale’n’co, but they change their approach on everything they record – always experimenting with sound, form and content. For example, one of their most acclaimed efforts was a one-song album called ‘Flood’, and was pretty much an ambient record, according to all concerned. (No, I don’t have a copy yet. Yes, I do want one. Now). Their records are also pretty damn hard to get hold of if you live outside of Japan, so SL have been good enough to license their two most notorious releases for consumption in the US & Europe.

First up was ‘AbsoluteGo’, described by none other than Earth’s Dylan Carson as ‘the soundtrack to two slugs fucking’. It’s one 65-minute track, with a feedback intro that lasts something like 25 minutes, then spends 15 minutes actually thumping and moving like an extremely heavy rock band washed in fathoms of feedback. Then the drums stop and not a remarkable amount happens afterwards as everything dies down. It’s like someone composed an intro to Sleep’s ‘Jerusalem/Dopesmoker’ (indeed this was recorded before Sleep decided to make a one-song album) that ended up outweighing that particular behemoth. And it’s a far more avant take on experimenting with drones. Oh yeah, and it was their debut full-length album. What’s more, the reissue has got a bonus track to fill up the remaining ten minutes of the CD called ‘Dronevil2’. Pretty self-descriptive, I reckon. SL re-released it as a ‘Special Low Frequency Verson’, just as Earth’s epochal ‘2’ was billed.

The second of SL’s reissues is quite possible my favourite of their releases, being as it is the 5 song, 70-minute opus that is Boris’ ‘Amplifier Worship’. Put very simply, this album is a direct infusion of the Melvins’ best bouts of riff’n’bellows with psychedelia and experimentalism, meaning that a five-minute long slab of anthemic heavy rock will suddenly turn on a dime and head into a passage of understated introspection that might even outweigh the initial song itself, as is the case on the second and fourth tracks. My favourite of these is the 14-minute ‘Kuruimizu’, which starts out extremely fast, heavy, punky, and direct, and ends up being the complete opposite – slow, light, extremely melodic, and meandering. All the songs flow into each other to create a brain squishing whole, but all sound amazing when listened to on their own. It’s like the perfect jigsaw, where all the pieces are individually beautiful, and then when you put them together the bigger picture is somehow even grander. I really can’t do justice to this dazzlingly colourful music with mere words. Just make sure you hear it by whatever means you can, as it really is one of the best albums I’ve heard in recent memory. A word of warning though: like all the music I’ve blathered on about here, it’s really not an option to listen to it at anything less than extremely loud volumes, lest you lose all the physical effects of this stunning and inspirational music. Boris are supposedly returning to the UK around June/July ’04. Go see.

Actually, one more thing before I leave: a word about the Sunn0))) live show, witnessed by this here apostle at the end of October 2003. The one word you need to describe it more than any other is physical. Simmo, my esteemed flatmate, reckons it’s like experiencing an erection on a school bus when you’re 13. I think it’s the closest aural equivalent to trance-inducing meditation or drugs you’re going to get. You know that bit near the beginning of Back to the Future where Marty McFly gets blown off his feet by a one-gigawatt amplifier (you know, cos he’s got that awful 80s guitar and you’ve got an awful feeling he’s going to start playing Van Halen like a one-handed retarded monkey)? Well, the Sunn0))) live show is like that moment where he’s lifted off his feet, except that you don’t hit the ground again for an hour. I’d call it blissful and therapeutic if I wasn’t afraid of being called a new-age sap. Which, after I’ve apologised for being utterly, utterly wrong about metal, is probably a good point at which to leave you.

Further Information
Southern Lord
diskant’s Southern Lord interview

Dave Stockwell

David can always be relied on to end his e-mails with one of those 'np: blah blah' things in order to remind us of how much more music he listens to every day than anybody else. His interests include rockin ' out in a major style as guitarist in Souvaris, throwing frisbees from tall buildings "just to see what happens" and simply kickin' back with his bitches in a gold-plated jacuzzi.


2 Responses to diskant rewind: Etch-a-Sketch Yr Fear of AIDS #4

  1. Marceline Smith

    That Southern Lord interview is one of the most visited pages on diskant, fact fans.

  2. Dave S

    I would like to state that I no longer think Slayer suck shit.

    And that Greg Anderson is a lovely man to grant us such an inconsequential interview and answer questions in such good humour.