A dense wall of fog coloured warm red and icy blue stands as a barrier between the stage and audience. Through it, dim visages of monolithic amplifier stacks appear with the users standing stoic before them. Robed in druid cowls, these ethereal figures begin with thunderous composure, constructing primeval chunks of auditory terror. The sounds filling the auspicious Roundhouse feel other worldly, and the blockade between performer and audience member feels greater than a thick fog. What is on stage feels like something unattainable. Such is the power of Sunn O))).
Sunn O))) are mythologised in fact for their live show. A great portion of the audience greets them with hands held aloft as if it were a religious experience. The reception is almost messianic, deifying the avant garde instrumental outfit. The near sold-out crowd at the Roundhouse goes in with expectations of the great fables that have been told of Sunn O)))’s live prowess; The Independent famously gave their Barbican show in 2017 a perfect five star rating, as well as myriad publications proclaiming them to be one of the great live bands. The thick layer of mist that surrounds the stage is certainly intriguing, and the sombre light show that slowly shifts between palates of colour has an emotional heft to it that guides the audience’s thoughts and feelings. Moving from frosty blues to radiant white and extravagant golds, it feels as though the lighting does most of the work for the night, and influences audience perception rather than letting the soundscapes cast their magic.
Musically the set is almost flawless. This will come as no surprise to even the passing Sunn O))) fan: Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, the two main forces behind the droning project, are consummate professionals and incredibly skilled musicians. The notes that make up the squalling wall of feedback and drone are played with vigour, and a necessary amount of restraint for their pioneering work. Around the hour mark of the set, Steve Moore is cast in a spotlight to deliver a glacially paced trombone solo that adds a layer to the already textured music. It turns the night from a barren and sanguine odyssey to something more hopeful, humble, recalling the sounds of War-Time music of the early twentieth century. He stands isolated from his fellow performers in this beam of light, a focal and auditory point of contact for the audience. There is no denying Sunn O)))’s abilities as pioneering artists. The soundscapes they create can be glorious, even revelatory to some. The tectonic velocity of playing mirrors the fissure like explosion of sound from the crust of silence.
Another legend of Sunn O))) is their volume. In every review you will care to read, tales are told of the way in which the music assaults you on a primal and physical level. The truth of tonight’s performance; it could have been louder. Though at times the resonant frequencies would make your skin tremble and the clothes reverberate around your body, it was not the gig so loud ‘it rattled internal organs’ as the Manchester Evening News described their 2017 set. It is almost something of a disappointment to attend a Sunn O))) show and not have your spleen erupt under a constant and inhuman level of pressure, but whether it was the limitations of the venue or a willingness to wind down the volume knobs on the plethora of amplifiers, the music’s effects were not physical.
There is a certain element of tongue-in-cheek humour about the extremity of the outfit from the almost mocking cowls to the verbosity of the music. They don’t feel like a band that take themselves too seriously. This is rather heartening and allows a more favourable look at them but leaves me puzzled as to why I did not enjoy the show more. The execution of the music was near-perfect, the visual show on display was utterly mesmerising, and the music was dynamic, rich with various moods communicated through textured instrumentation. The problem is I didn’t feel anything. For all the technical skill, the intricacy of the craft, the beauty of the lighting, the audacity to play music this opaque in these kinds of venues, it all felt rather mechanical. Sunn O)))’s music is organic, blossoming euphoria through seeming simplicity, so to find their live show to be so cold and calculated is a great shame. The movements of the music felt so meticulously planned that it lacked any engagement, any humanity. There were many people in that room for whom it was the pinnacle of excellence, but in the case of this review the myths remain myths. There is an argument that I ‘don’t get it’, but that doesn’t feel like an argument that holds water. I appreciate all the component parts, just not the performance in this instance. Perhaps in another couple of years when they return from their plane of existence, I will unlock the secret of Sunn O))). For now, I remain unconvinced.