Many people describe seeing Sunn O))) as a mystical experience. Depending on who you ask, their performances are either transcendental and borderline heavenly or the actual sounds of souls being torn from bone and sinew by a cackling, merciless Belial.
I can’t really say that’s how I saw them, though.
I can’t really say I saw them, either, to be fair.
How could you? Sunn O)))’s shows start with a blast of dense fog that overwhelms you. A guy in front of me reached back, putting his hand on my shoulder. I could feel his fingers dig in a bit. He turned, and immediately apologized.
“Sorry man, I don’t get claustrophobic… but I just got claustrophobic.”
Normally this kind of thing would make me bristle, but not now. I got it. I understood. Seconds ago, I could see the far back of the stage perfectly fine. I could see the Exit signs, no problem. Now? The hand that was just on my shoulder seemed like it emerged from a Lovecraftian mist, threatening to rip me into the abyss.
My buddy who was with me laughed. The dude who experienced an (understandable) sudden pang of terror did, too. We all did. There’s a camaraderie at metal shows, and that’s amplified a bit more when you’re all crowded into the basement of an old building so that you can be blasted with 100+ decibels of holy shit.
The suffocating fog wasn’t just for ambience, though — it was also a courtesy. This was now the time to get your fucking earplugs in. If you didn’t bring your own, that’s fine — a Sunn O))) veteran made his way around the room with a large backpack, handing out plugs. He tapped me on the back and asked me if I needed some. I told him no, and pointed to my own ears (happily plugged up by the best ear plugs I could find on Amazon). I came prepared. I knew what I was in for.
(I didn’t know what I was in for.)
The first riff (Chord? Riff? Primal cacophony?) ruptured through the fog, the sheer force of vibrating air seemed to push the mist away. I was immediately caught in the chest. My lungs vibrated. I could feel, without exaggeration, the air in my throat tingling. I could feel the contents of my sinuses twitch (thanks, historic allergy season!).
One guy to the left brought out his phone, showing a decibel meter. 113. That’s what it read. And it’s all bass. Sure, there are louder bands out there — but I’m not sure any of them can top the magnitude of low frequencies that Sunn O))) brings to the table. Or the rush of air. Or the crushing, suffocating feeling of a wall of speaker cabinets just trying to vibrate the entirety of Callowhill Street.
Your clothes vibrate. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t me using flowery language. Your. Clothes. Vibrate. They dance on your skin. Once again, maybe “dance” is taking it a little far, but you absolutely can feel them bouncing on your flesh. That’s real. That’s what I experienced.
Your hair will stand on end. You’ll feel it in your guts. Your body is not used to being vibrated like this. You itch all over, but then the sound just keeps vibrating you and the urge to scratch it fades.
The air current created by the movement of sound cause the aforementioned fog to swirl and dissipate. The machine cuts in again and floods the room with more. Rinse, repeat. The lights change. There’s a rhythm to it. Meanwhile, Sunn O))) is on stage, moving as if their guitars are magical scepters. They aren’t just strumming them — they’re moving them. You’ll watch as they hold their guitar up, swooping it down, the vibrations against the strings changing based on where they are in proximity to the speaker cabinets.
This creates a unique sound: one I’ve never earnestly heard before. When I was kid, my dad took me to an airshow that was next to his work. An F-14 flew over my head, followed by the air crackling behind it. This was like that — just more.
You ever hear of a downburst? They’re a meteorological phenomenon where air rapidly cools and plummets to the ground, creating a momentous wall of wind. People describe them sounding similar to a tornado: like a freight train.
Well, I’ve never heard one before, but I’m absolutely sure “like Sunn O))) when they do that guitar drop thing” is a way more accurate sonic comparison.
It’s just an hour and change of that. Just pummeling you with visceral sound, over and over.
No one moves, either. Everyone is transfixed.
The band — both Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson — occasionally break through the mist. They’re utterly intoxicating to watch: just two robed figures sloshing about the thick, soupy air. Red and blue lights cut through, embracing their figures. Their hands and arms move slow, speeding up in unison to strike against strings. It’s alien and uncanny.
Combined with the sound and the light and the stillness of the crowd, it pulls you in. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s just so bizarre.
Every now and again someone will pull out their phone to snap a picture. Normally, everyone gets pissed at the dude taking picture in the front row — but not here. Everyone else does it eventually, too. It’s hard not to. What are you seeing? What are you feeling? You’re not taking a picture as social proof. You’re doing it to prove to yourself that you’re seeing this. That you’re feeling it.
But the sound, the standing still, the fog — all of it is tiring. After an hour, you’re spent. My buddy admitted that he almost walked out. I felt the same.
But at that point, it just gets weirder. The noises get stranger. One of the members of Sunn O))) strummed his guitar, held it up, but instead of dropping it back down, he put it on an amp and slowly walked through the mist toward the stage, bowing and raising his hands toward the sky — like he was praying.
Have you ever seen someone play a riff and then just walk the fuck away?
That’s how the show ended. They both did that. The guitars kept playing. The amps kept processing the chaos. The speakers kept spewing it at us. It only stopped when they both walked to their pedal boards and slowly cranked their foot on their respective volume pedals.
It was over. The crowd erupted. Both members mouthed “thank you” over and over to the crowd.
Seeing Sunn O))) was always a bucket list thing for me. I always wanted to do it. I’ve been told many, many times that it’s a hell of an experience, and it was. But that’s the thing — it is an experience. When you see Sunn O))), you’re not really seeing music live. That’s not what you’re here for. I know it sounds pretentious, but going to a Sunn O))) show is like seeing a performance. It’s art. Maybe it’s more than that.
After all, you’re here to have your body vibrated alongside a crowd of people that wants the exact same thing. You’re here to close your eyes and just focus on how your body reacts to being assaulted by sound, without remorse.
You’re here to experience the vibration, through everything. Through everyone. And you’ll never forget it once you experience it.
Ah, fuck. I guess it was a tad mystical, wasn’t it?