Sunn O))) Live: It Took the Night to Believe

a wall of sunn amps and random speaker cabinets

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.

me, obscured by clouds

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.

sunn live

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 ambiance, 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!).

Wommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Another.

Wommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Another.

Wommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

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.

a member of sunn holding his guitar up

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 robbed 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.

sunn live

Have you ever seen someone play a riff and then just walk the fuck away?

Amazing.

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?

 

 

 

Where did all of the content go? (Or: Hello!)

Hi!

My name is Chris. Nice to meet you!

The page that you’ve landed on is my blog — not in the SEO-y, let-me-sell-you-AFFILIATE-LINK-HERE sort of way. No — this is old-school. LiveJournal style. Despite the fact that I’m an SEO expert by trade, I kinda despise what the Internet has become. For the last decade or so, I’ve had this domain basically as a dumping ground for my thoughts.

At times, it’s been a place where I’ve dumped relationship thoughts. Or thoughts on music. Or video games. Or bits and pieces of papers I was working on. Or poems, short stories — whatever.

It’s also been a place to connect with friends (or anyone else that’s trying to reach me). I’ve been part of many communities over the years, and whenever I’ve moved on, I’ve pointed people here.

Anyway, let me answer some questions:

Are you that guy from…

  • The Scarlet March, Storm, Hatred, Anesthesia, Somnambulism, etc: Yes! I was known either as Royastrasz, Strasz, Royan, or Sauce, depending on which one of those guilds you knew me from.
  • That SEO Class? Yes! I’ve taught (and continue to teach) a few classes on SEO through my job at The Content Factory. I’m that guy, too.
  • That guy doing band PR? If you mean PR for my wife’s band, Cabinets of Curiosity, then yes! I’m really proud of the work I’ve done for them, but I’m currently not looking to represent any other groups at this time.
  • Were you a professor? At one time, I was an adjunct professor. I taught English. Unfortunately, I no longer teach. I miss it, truly — but I also need health insurance.
  • Some other old Internet community? There’s a good chance I might be the guy you’re looking for. If you’re curious, feel free to DM me on Twitter. That’s probably the best way to ask. (Alternatively, message me on Discord: strasz#0001)
  • Grad school? Yeah, probably — if you’re looking for the guy that liked to talk about critical theory, video games, and well, basically anything else, that’s me.

And, of course…

I came here from a search engine/link/I knew you before/something else, and what I’m looking for is gone!

Yeah, about that…

This site has been a repository for my thoughts for a little over a decade. Ultimately, I just wasn’t very comfortable with some of the stuff that was posted here — at least not for public consumption. I’ve left some of the music stuff, but I’ve hidden the rest.

Likewise, the last time this blog was seriously active, I was mostly just posting stuff from grad school. I’m kinda embarrassed by that stuff, to be honest — mostly because it was all a work-in-progress, and it wasn’t representative of my final papers.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

If you’re an old friend, please reach out — I love talking to people from my past!

If you’re a random internet stranger — hello! I hope you’re having a nice day, and I hope you enjoyed a peek into someone else’s life.

— Chris

Anathema – The Optimist

Anathema albums are never easy to review. That’s not just because of the ephemeral nature of their sound from album to album, but because reviewing an Anathema album always seems a bit like pulling apart the gray matter in Daniel and Vincent¬†Cavanagh’s heads. Every Anathema album is drenched in emotion — or rather, emotions. There’s never just one, and it’s not always clear which is driving the music forward.

That swirling, permanent state of emotional conflict might is, once again, at the heart of The Optimist, Anathema’s 11th album. The Optimist is, according to the band, a direct response to A Fine Day to Exit. That album — which seemed to slightly turn the band’s sound slightly more “alternative” — featured a cover with a set of coordinates on a note stuck to the dash. Those coordinates, 32.63n 117.14w (Silver Strand Beach in San Diego, if you’re curious), are also the title of the first track on the album. An ambient piece that begins with the sounds of the ocean mixed with the heavy breathing of the protagonist, it ends with an electronic beat that fades into the next track (but not before we hear the radio flicking between stations, of which at least one is playing an Anathema song).

From that point on, the album mixes a good deal of Anathema’s past styles, and while it still falls heavy on the sort of the electronic neo-prog / post-rock stylings of the past three records, shortly after the record starts going, there’s a thematic tone that slips in that has only passively played a part in Anathema’s recent catalog.

My first time listening, I got halfway through before it hit me:

“Oh. This is a doom record.”

Doom metal is one of those weird genres — there’s something about it that’s strangulating. It has tendrils, and they’ll never let you go. This is especially true for musicians who dabble in it: they might move on, but you can always hear the threads, and you can always feel the genre’s pull on them. I suppose you could argue the same thing about other genres — punk or other types of metal, maybe — but there’s something different about doom.

Doom attracts two sort of people: on one hand, you have the individual who listens to depressing music for the same reason that some people drink wine. There’s something oddly cathartic and refreshing about it, even though you know that too much is poison.

On the other hand, there’s the alcoholics.

No matter how far they run, that’s not changing. I don’t think it’s an accident that most people I’ve met who are into doom metal (or who are creating it) are mentally ill. This isn’t music created while depressed, it’s music about what the world looks like when you are.

Now, of course, this isn’t doom metal — and I’m not about to make an argument that it is, but those tendrils are present here, and while they are always on Anathema records, it’s been awhile since they’ve been as present, as visible, as suffocating. The past three records have felt like responses and rebukes to their past attitudes. Sure, there’s a direct connection there, but it’s distant. It’s looking over the shoulder at what once was. The man — or band — in triumph.

The Optimist isn’t — it starts that way, much in the same way previous Anathema albums have started — but it quickly shifts, bringing back that feeling of despair that lingered oh-so-close on earlier Anathema records (and yes, prominently on A Fine Day to Exit).

That record is very much about a man in crisis, trying to figure out where to go, ultimately ending up on a deserted beach in San Diego. With the sound of the waves crashing, I always thought it was obvious what was to happen next.

The Optimist looks back at that moment — and at the drive back. It’s painful, and when we realize it’s a flashback of sorts, we realize that, no, our protagonist didn’t die on that beach. He found his family. He went back. But that doesn’t change the fact that those waves are always nipping at his feet, always calling him to the sand. He isn’t going there today — and he desperately doesn’t want to — but that doesn’t mean there’s never a relapse.

The Optimist is a powerful record — and while it isn’t my favorite from Anathema, it’s a worthy addition to the band’s repertoire.