A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Sunn O)))’s first proper LP finds the drone metal duo at their most pure, and most accessible.
“Youth always tries to fill the void, an old man learns to live with it.”
― Mark Z. Danielewski
“My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Sunn O))) seem to have emerged from the void fully formed. From the first notes of The Grimmrobe Demos, released earlier in 2000, the duo of Stephen O’ Malley and Greg Anderson came out of the gate of horn and ivory with their mission of stretching the riffs of doom metal to infinity and beyond, taking the elegant, elegiac drone metal of Earth’s 2 to its natural conclusion and kickstarting a quiet, loud revolution in the process.
Listening back to ∅∅ Void, it’s rather impressive Sunn O))) would go on to become as popular and influential as they are. ∅∅ Void is the definition of uncompromising – an hour of blasted, bleary bass drones, stretched out over the course of four monolithic tracks. These four tracks are some of the finest works of Sunn O)))’s discography, and also some of the most spare and unadorned.
On ∅∅ Void, more so than any other release before or since, Sunn O)))’s music is more tone and texture than any sort of musical content. It’s an extended meditation on the crushing power of the riff, pure Amplifier Worship, to quote fellow drone metallers Boris.
∅∅ Void kicks right off with “Richard,” a shuddering, quaking elongation of the opening of Black Sabbath‘s “Iron Man,” with all its queasy microtonalism. The ground feels unsteady under our feet, more quagmire than permafrost, waiting to pull us under into the waiting night. The peaks and plummets of drawn-out sine waves hit harder than the heaviest metal drummer, shaking yr subwoofers to shreds, throwing yr animal brain into panic, becoming a field mouse in the presence of some unseen behemoth.
∅∅ Void gets more accessible as it goes along, interestingly, or perhaps we’re just getting inured to Sunn O)))’s hermetic soundworld. “NN O)))” sports actual metal riffs, downright rambunctious by O’ Malley and Anderson’s usual tectonic crawl. You can almost bang yr head to it, albeit very, very slowly. Ditto that for “Rabbit’s Revenge” which, upon closer examination, turns out to be a version of The Melvins’ “Hung Bunny”. You can hear snippets of the original around the five-minute mark, as the original tape is played in the background.
We exit the void with “Ra At Dusk.” On one hand, it’s more of the same – nearly 15 minutes of drawn out bass drones, perhaps shot through with a bit more amplifier buzz than before. Some actual action takes place a few minutes in, with a chugging, muscular guitar riff bringing some actual rhythm to the otherwise meditative drone. Given the name, it’s easy to envision the great god Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, preparing to enter the underworld, to ward off Apep in the underworld for another night, only to be reborn the following morning.
In a feature from last year for The Guardian, author John Doran quotes an interview from Stephen O’ Malley, where he talks about his approach to collaboration, “of allowing oneself to proceed through tasks without expectations and preconceptions. “It comes back to working on the sound itself as its own thing rather than having special guests.” Sunn O))) approach music as pure sound, raw sine waves spun out like saltwater taffy using the alchemical energy of electricity. Guitar riffs are more like some featureless basalt monolith than a hummable tune.
This is, in part, due to the hi-fi nature of ∅∅ Void‘s recording sessions. The album was recorded at Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders, who had previously recorded massive artists like Neil Young, No Doubt, and Tool. Many of the subtleties of the drone could be lost in rawer, more lo-fi recording situations. ∅∅ Void helped to kickstart the drone metal movement while simultaneously setting the bar impressively high.
I once had a friend who talked about how metal was the only suitable vessel for minimalism in rock and roll music. I don’t entirely agree, but metal, especially drone and doom metal, are uniquely capable of taking advantage of minimalism’s hypnotic focus on repetition, the meditation of pure tone, and the freeing of sound from the strict confines of Western tonality.
Sunn O)))’s music has been jokingly referred to as “Power Ambient,” but the comparison is apt. Ambient music is all about focusing on the backdrop rather than the foregrund. It’s more about space than what happens within it. It’s tempting to read ∅∅ Void as prescient. It was released on June 26, 2000, a year and a few months before the world would catch ablaze beneath the crumbling shadows of 9/11. In 2000, Radiohead was mining a similar post-millenial melancholy, reflecting on the nihilistic melancholy and anxiety of life under late capitalism. The cracks were already beginning to show, in 2000, we just had no idea how deep the fissure would be, and how far we would fall. ∅∅ Void recognizes and acknowledges the power and importance of assessing systems of power and control. It predicts the digital void of which we all would be consumed in just a few years time. It invites us to seize that power, to bring the background into focus, to create our own systems and wield them for a fairer and more just world.
Happy birthday, ∅∅ Void, the world wouldn’t be the same without you.