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Concert Review/ SUNN O))) & Fear Falls Burning

img  Tobias

The greatest victory of Satan, a popular saying goes, was to make people believe he didn't exist. This hypothesis may explain why clerical officials are increasingly dropping their formerly deep-rooted objections against having Metal bands play at churches. It is hard to believe that a group like SUNN O))) would ever become a popular guest at houses of worship around the globe, but in fact tonight's gig is anything but their first divinely inspired stage appearance and follows hot in the heels of the radical „Domkirke“ double-LP, their high-culture-commissioned stab at fusing low-frequency mayhem with mythical Organ mantras. With its Gothic ornamenations and supranatural light diffusion characteristics, the spacious nave of the Predikherenkerk already breathes the kind of mysteriously melancholic air that promises a diabolic cocktail of spiritual salvation, chakral cleansing and pure and simple physical excitement. A full 350 disciples, some of them travelers from afar, have taken the pilgrimage to the old city centre of Leuven with its Kafka-esque side-by-sideness of run-down houses, decrepit brick walls, dark side-alleys, inviting cafes and a maelstrom-like brook serpentining through its intestines like an uncoiled sidewinder enraged by its own poison – needless to say the concert has sold out several days in advance.

Prior to SUNN O)))'s unholy proceedings, it is up to Fear Falls Burning to set the mood for the evening. Dirk Serries has opened for other notable acts before, of course, but appearances with Cult of Luna and Isis notwithstanding, tonights concert is something special even by his standards. For someone as inspired by the physical impact of sound as Serries, performing with the band which has all but become a synonym with the genre as whole promises to create a creative court for „the Guitar drone“. His approach, however, is not reverential, but confident and motivated at the same time. A sharp and aggressive riff, harbinger of a performance brimming with power and precision, is blasting through the speakers as he takes his position in front of the iconic SUNN O))) amp-towers. Quickly and efficiently, he inflates the contours of this acoustic field with blasts of fuzz and controlled distortion, until all colours have been condensed into a spectrally humming, vibraphonic beam of pearly harmonics and haunting pulsation.

The soft light of the early evening is still shining through the arched windows high above the altar and you can almost see the music cathedrally rising up from Serries' Guitars to the dome, dispersing like red-hot incense in the frenziedly resonating church air. After he has elevated his audience to the highest highs, however, a brutally mangled second section pulls listeners down again with morbid doom sludge and apocalyptic industrial contortions. Again, his technique consists of psychedelically embellishing his drone foundation from its direct and impulsive beginnings into a complex protoplasmic wall of spasmically twitching sound. But within this dense and monolithic cloud, there are still plenty of free layers, which Serries greedily taps into in order to stir up ghostly melodies and anthemic overtones. It is all new materal tonight and nestles prickly in between the raw zest of „Frenzy of the Absolute“, the smudgy beauty of „The Amplifier Drone“ and the spaced-out occultism of his eponymously titled collaboration with Birchville Cat Motel. Deeper and deeper the vessel sinks to the bottom of a subsonic rift and only after each and every frequency has been filled does Serries leave the stage with a determined look in his eyes, waiting for his partner in sound Ronald Mariën to pull up the volume knob beyond the point of no return and then ending the performance with a spectacular whiteout resonating through the audience like an inverted big bang.

You can tell his slot has been a success merely be the fact that the entire auditorium has followed his moves with eager anticipation, no one as much as leaving for a beer and only the merchandising stand upholding its activities by continuing to sell hoodies, tapes and LPs by the truckloads. The members of SUNN O))), meanwhile, have been following the performance with enthusiasm as well, congratulating Serries afterwards and trading in their own material for Serries most recent albums, such as his latest solo effort „microphonics iv“ and plenty of Fear Falls Burning Vinyl later in the evening. For the moment, however, they disappear into the narrow backstage area of the Predikherenkerk, slipping into their robes and leaving the public to simmer with ominous Organ progressions building up suspense over the PA before the actual performance. The organisers, too, are visibly sweating out their flurry over what's to come, as Leuven's police force appears to have announced they will keep a close ear on the event, in case decibel levels should hit the red for much more than the blink of an eye. The fact that the band have shattered a couple of windows prior to the proceedings on the strength of their sonic force alone has not exactly reassured them everything is not only going to be louder than everything else tonight but in fact louder than the good folks at Leuven PD will allow.

Before the acoustic onslaught gets underway, however, thick plumes of dry ice are rising from all corners of the church, drenching the entire building into threatening white swathes of sweetly perfumed fog and limiting one's sight to a radius of a few metres at best. It is therefore hard to actually see the band picking up their instruments as they enter the stage, but wild cheers of excitement are indicating their arrival until, from out of the expecting void, a subwoofer shockwave is hitting the room. Compared to their gig at The Hague's State-X New Forms Festival, which I witnessed two years ago, their line-up has been reduced to the core duo of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Andersen and in the absence of Keyboards and additional Bass Guitars, there are no spacey introductions or stabs at dark ambient in the opening section. Gone, too, are subtle transitions or painful preparations, gradual transformations and incremental incantations. The SUNN O))) experience is simply there, as though someone had flipped a switch and set the air of the Predikherenkerk on fire, all bodies inside its womb collectively resonating in morbid accord.

Other than what some may suspect, a SUNN O))) gig is no structureless mass of wilful sound waves and undefined noise. Compared to the intricate tactics of Fear Falls Burning, of course, the formations' operations are all but brutish, but they are so in an inescapable and infinitely intriguing way. A foreign will is taking over the location, reducing all one's senses to hearing and feeling. From the salutary opening crunches, the music enters a phase of slow-motion movement and then builds into a series of hypnotic Riffs. These are at first stoically repeated, then deconstructed, shifting within themselves, chords twisting into ghoulish dissonances. In the final stages, the music arrives at a passage of inner calm, with the drones taking over, blurring the line between composition and a state of awestruck trance. There is no hiding, as every corner of the church is filled with resonance and energy but if you remove your earplugs, the sound is actually crisp and pristine and anything but blurry, distorted or opaque. Everyone is appreciating this attack in their private way. In the front rows, the most dedicated followers are taking in the music with motionless transfixation, while a solitary fan is headbanging in the back to a rhythm only he can hear. While some are standing dreamily reclined against one of the chapel's pillars with their eyes closed in otherworldy reverie, others are holding their hands against their head, as if shielding it from the enveloping violence. No one, however, is leaving. Somewhere, a girl has apparently fainted, while another is shaking her head in utter disbelief for what seems like the entire concert.

And yet, there is nothing demonic or depressed either about SUNN O))) nor the night as such at all. As darkness slowly falls outside, a sense of community is starting to build. There is a lot of movement going on in the nave, with visitors testing the changes in perception from different corners of the church and, amazingly, striking up a conversation here and there. There are even couples kissing and embracing each other to what may probably the oddest romantic tune ever played. As the plug is pulled just as abruptly as with the Fear Falls Burning concert, a suprised salute of enthusiasm echoes back from the crowd in a twin sensation of amazement and relief. The mood is spirited and energetic and you feel as though you'd just been massaged by the god of noise on one of his particularly enjoyable days.

SUNN O))), too, have obviously enjoyed their Belgian adventure. The representatives of STUK, the organisation responsible for the gig as well as for bringing other notable acts like Earth and Justin Broderick over to Leuven, are taking us to the warm and inviting cafe at their headquarters, where a DJ is spinning Metal records at a mindboggling volume and where there are still plenty of guests bent over imaginatively sculpted chalices of goldenly glistening beverages at two o clock in the night. All tension has gone and there is certainly no talk of the devil having just taken over the city's church. Tonight, Satan is fully content with drinking a few beers instead.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Charles from Tonefloat Records

Homepage: SUNN O)))
Homepage: Fear Falls Burning
Homepage: Southern Lord Records
Homepage: Tonefloat Records
Homepage: Conspiracy Records
Homepage: STUK

 

 

 

 

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