“Life Metal,” the latest record from the Seattle-based drone duo Sunn O))), is another sonic black hole. On this eighth studio album — not including a number of past collaborative LPs, with the likes of Boris and the late, great Scott Walker — the band wanders away from its bleak aesthetic in favor of romantic tinges and an organic vitality, all the while sticking to its trademark concept: a distillation and elevation of metal music into its most primitive and spiritual forms.
On the surface, the album’s title is a humorous play on the genre term death metal. But the name also reflects on the current attitude and outlook of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, the band’s two core members.
In an interview with NPR, O’Malley stressed the importance of beauty and creativity in our contemporary landscape: "How fortunate are we to be able to live in this open creative world? It's really important to acknowledge that, especially in these times, where a lot has happened between politics and world situations and environmental crises’.”
That same optimistic philosophy finds its way into the music. Although the album still comes with the usual challenges — mainly extreme length and unconventional structure — “Life Metal” often leaps towards vibrant, natural beauty over gothic aesthetics.
The album is the first in a planned diptych, recorded straight to analog tape with help from the legendary audio engineer Steve Albini; its companion piece, titled “Pyroclasts,” will release later this year. In studio, Anderson and O’Malley sought the help of multi-instrumentalist Hildur Gudnadottir, bassist Tim Midyett and composer Anthony Pateras.
Gudnadottir pops up in the album’s 12-minute opener, “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths,” with an expressive vocal delivery that sits softly atop the band’s crushing guitar tone. The lyrics, derived from 15th century mesoamerican poetry, focus on the brevity and finite nature of life: “Like plumed vestments of the precious bird / That precious bird with the agile neck / We will come to an end.”
Bookended by the noise of chariot horses, the song leads the listener into the dynamic and pilgrimatic experience that will soon unfold — all to culminate in “Novæ,” the album’s 26-minute closer.
The overwhelming guitar work of Anderson and O’Malley often finds a harmonious pairing with the band’s collaborators, referred to as the greater Sunn O))) constellation. The compositions begin to shimmer, achieving a symphonic quality, as pipe organs, Moog synthesizers and crotales work their way into the mix.
Towards the end of “Troubled Air,” as a discordant pipe organ sounds off, the band achieves a celestial quality before devolving into to a typical heat-death feedback; there’s a similar effect in the track “Aurora,” on which an ethereal soundscape is obscured behind distorted guitars.
The aforementioned “Novæ” is perhaps the album’s main event, paying special attention to the tonal oscillations and Gudnadottir’s excellent cello work. In its intro, the track chugs along with energetic chord changes, hearkening back to the band’s initial sonic influence: the Washington-based Earth.
During its latter half, the song becomes tranquil and meditative with its timbre, completely void of distortion. But soon enough, the music reaches its logical conclusion with one final, monolithic yell from the guitar, as the album comes to a spirited close.
Still working within the pop conventions of an album, Sunn O))) successfully pushes its music to Wagnerian ambition, with compositions that only increase in length as the album progresses. Along with the expected stoicism, “Life Metal” is able to present a mystical and life-affirming experience — with the only requirement being a reflective patience.