Over the past few years, Sunn O))) have become synonymous with the concept of "art-metal." At best, the idea suggests that heavy, guitar-based bands are thinking creatively about how to sound more brutal than their forbearers-- recording vocals inside a coffin, for example; or warping the five-minute Black Sabbath dirge into a 15-minute-long, beatless storm of frequencies admittedly engineered to induce defecation. At worst, the idea nourishes a well-established sense of superiority over metal's fans: One New York Times headline addressing the so-called trend read "Heavy Metal Gets an M.F.A."-- a title whose cleverness kicks in only if you believe that people who like heavy metal are not only stupid and unimaginative, but poor, too.
The idea's crowning irony, though, is that most art-metal practitioners seem more indebted-- and endeared-- to their vulgar cousins than, say, art-pop groups or underground rappers. No volume of style-section garbage can cover up the fact that Sunn O)))-- a band co-founded by former Burning Witch guitarist Stephen O'Malley-- stakes their reputation on monoliths of noise called "Helloween" and "Bass Aliens". And when asked if 2004 was a good year for metal by the website Lords of Metal, Asva principal (and former Burning Witch and sometime Sunn O))) bassist) Stuart Dahlquist said, without irony, "No, Dime[bag Darrell, of Pantera] got killed"-- the party line.
In an interview from 2001, Stephen O'Malley described Burning Witch's two EPs-- recorded between 1996 and 1998 and collected on Crippled Lucifer-- as "slow, heavy music playing around with time." On 1996's Steve Albini-recorded Towers, the band finishes only five songs over 47 minutes, demonstrating not only stubbornness, but alien restraint. Every note is choked; every crevice between is pulled taut and splattered with feedback. Songs bottom out minutes before stopping. Vocalist Edgy 59's lyrics plunge into familiar forms of loneliness and self-destruction, but he sings them with the sustained hysteria of someone boiling. He could make a dessert menu sound unpleasant. Like great horror movies, Towers doesn't just play with time, it punishes it for moving too fast. Shock-- quick, cheap, and explosive-- is subjugated to duration, which is meant to be agonizing. When I talk to friends about what compels me to horror movies, I bring up the scene in Dario Argento's Suspiria where a girl falls into a pit full of barbed wire: Seeing her fall gives me a jolt, but it's watching her try and crawl through it that takes my breath away.
And while time-- specifically, their commitment to distorting it-- is of the band's essence, its real innovations are in syntax: the way riffs fit together and songs are structured. While 1998's Rift.Canyon.Dreams contains more boilerplate, blues-influenced heavy metal riffs than Towers, they cycle at odd intervals, collect extra notes from nowhere, stretch, and spiral. By drifting back toward an established vocabulary, the band is able to play off listeners' expectations: If Towers is a foreign language, Rift.Canyon.Dreams, like Deerhoof or Captain Beefheart's music, is a familiar one tortured and scrambled to reveal new definitions-- a dictionary for much of what followed them.
After Burning Witch disbanded, Stephen O'Malley formed Sunn O))) with Greg Anderson, and bassist Stuart Dahlquist formed Asva with help from Burning Witch drummer B.R.A.D. Like Sunn O)))-- but unlike Burning Witch-- Asva is a band whose music prizes tone and atmosphere over composition. That's not to say that Dahlquist isn't traditionally musical-- he is, staunchly. But compared to O'Malley's near-clinical austerity with Sunn O)))-- at times, an exerise in charting every gradation between extremely heavy and unbearably heavy-- Dahlquist's approach sounds homely, almost arcane. What You Don't Know Is Frontier, his second full-length, is a testament not to metal's extremity, but to its epic grandiosity-- a trait that sometimes aligns it more closely with 19th-century opera and Ennio Morricone soundtracks than hard rock. The imagery conjured by the album is lonely and pre-civilized: cliffs, lightning, animal-on-animal fighting-- the Awesome, as defined in books featuring God.
WYDKIF is humane, almost personal. Dahlquist even allows the occasional groove to foment. But only for a second, and with absolutely no smiling. Grooving-- and all related looseness-- has no place on long journeys into the void. But even if light-heartedness isn't what draws listeners to epic metal, seriousness has limits, and sometimes, Dahlquist finds them. At least the music stays gorgeous, the compositions well-structured, and the musicianship-- from members of Secret Chiefs 3, Mr. Bungle, and Earth-- excellent. Dahlquist's ear seems to have gotten broader since 2005's Futurists Against the Ocean, too: instead of leaning on rock-combo brutalism, he stakes his compositions on delicate percussion, wordless vocals, and quilts of sine waves. It's like he just realized there's more than one shade of gray.
Asva makes extreme music, but I wouldn't call it avant-garde by any stretch-- its passion is too familiar, its forms too recognizable. (It's worth adding that the title comes from a poem written by Dahlquist's brother, former Silkworm drummer Michael, who was killed in 2005-- a continuing trauma that has been a professed influence on Dahlquist's music.) They say the true aesthete can marvel at the beauty of the waves even as they drown-- a sentiment Dahlquist, unquestionably a feeler, would probably echo. For all the chatter about "heady metal," it's nice to hear a musician managing to stand apart from his genre without much thought at all. Via pitchfork.com
- Blackened Doom