Sunn O))) have always existed at a strange crossroads. In style, ethos and volume, the drone group is indebted to heavy metal. All the machismo and excess of that style is omnipresent in Sunn O)))’s work, but so is a measured appeal to the avant-garde—microtonal compositions, free jazz, atonal string drones—these things are probably just as full of machismo and excess anyway. Nowhere is this tension more apparent than at a Sunn O))) live show. Last weekend’s Metro Music Hall showcase found a crowd made up of equal parts leather-and-chain-clad metalheads and Wire-reading music nerds in colored pants. Call Sunn O))) either a mismatched amalgam or the great equalizer of taste, but there’s something special about the group’s ability to appeal to music fans who, on the surface, seem to have little in common.
The unique position of Sunn O))) was also apparent in their supporting acts, which were far from contained in a single genre. BIG|BRAVE, a Montreal-based trio comprising Robin Wattie (vocals and guitar), Mathieu Ball (guitar and other noises) and Loel Campbell (drums), were the most aggressive act of the evening. Their riff-heavy music inherits the head-banging, meditative aura of stoner metal, but the trio also brought an added dose of complexity with their wayward song structures and noisy atmosphere. There were few moments in their set where the chugging guitars at the front of their songs weren’t accompanied by swathes of noise and feedback, mostly provided by Ball’s extended-technique approach to his guitar.
Behind the wall of distortion, Campbell’s drumming was sparse but purposeful, always bringing the airy buzzing down to earth with thudding toms and cymbals. BIG|BRAVE’s shining element, however, was Wattie’s vocals. Her impressive range spread breathy whispering, full-bodied belting and a rasp that lie just on the edge between singing and screaming. Within each of these poles, Wattie embodied a different emotion—sometimes full of rage, sometimes softly yearning, sometimes pushing to line between these. Her performance had an almost blues-like sense of improvisation and fluid rubato, repeating phrases and lines with minor variations to emphasize the brittleness at the heart of the lyrics.
The night’s final opener was Papa M, the solo project of former Tortoise and Slint member Dave Pajo. It’s been over 20 years since Pajo existed in either group, and his development as a solo artist focuses on his exploration of the limits of the guitar as an expressive device. His short set at Metro showcased a range of his many styles, from droning acoustic improvisations to knotty electronic pieces, all before concluding on a gorgeous, Fahey-esque fingerpicking tune. The whole experience felt similar to a brief sample pack from Jim O’Rourke’s more experimental releases from the late ’90s and early aughts—Disengage, Happy Days, I’m Happy and I’m Singing…—and Pajo expertly meandered around these various musical areas.
The hall was packed with an anxious crowd by the time Sunn O)))’s set time rolled around, with the massive wall of 16 amplifiers ensuring that the rumors of the group’s unmatched volume were true. Metro Music Hall filled with fog so thick that you could barely see anyone or anything around you, and the whole room was flooded with soft pink and blue lights, giving the effect of being inside a mountain sunset. The group (that night, just the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson) took the stage in their signature druid robes and began one of the most surreal sets that I—and probably anyone else in the crowd, for that matter—have experienced this year. From the first chord to the last, Sunn O))) delivered a seamless string of sound that completely filled the Metro hall, front to back and ceiling to floor.
Sunn O))) succeeded in taking advantage of the inherent physicality of a concert experience, focusing on minute differences in their harmonies as a means of altering the state of their audience. Earplugs were a must, and the added comfort of not having your eardrums blown out let you fully immerse yourself in the show’s body-altering affects. At one moment, a high-pitched, feedback–laden drone would buzz in your head. Once the duo dropped into one of their characteristic subterranean power chords, the vibrations would move down to your shins. The whole set was an exploration of the power of beat frequencies, delayed resolution and, of course, the powerful effects sheer volume.
It’s through Sunn O)))’s metal roots that they receive the permission to explore these extremes. The audience responded to their hypnotizing, 75-minute set with plenty of “woo”-ing and fist pumping, reactions worlds away from what would’ve occurred had Anderson and O’Malley performed the same set juts a few decibels quieter in a concert hall. Despite any leanings towards a reserved, academic bookishness in their compositional style, Sunn O))) (and, apparently, any group that associates with them) are a rock band through and through, perfectly suited for late-night weekend concerts at local music dives.