Sunn O))) & Ulver: Terrestrials (Southern Lord)

Drone rockers inspired team up results in slow-burning triumph

Released Feb 3rd, 2014 via Southern Lord / By Erick Mertz
Sunn O))) & Ulver: Terrestrials (Southern Lord) It hardly come as a surprise that Sunn O))), a band that has made a name for itself on the fringe of metal’s avant-garde, would take part in one of the more compelling collaborations in recent memory. What should come as something of a shock however, is how pliable their distinctly heavy sound became under the deft influence of Ulver, an enigmatic Norwegian music project that has successfully crushed the black robe cliché in their home country with an effortless fluidity.

The base layers for the album that would come to be known as Terrestrials were recorded over a single night, August 10th 2008. The session came immediately following Sunn O)))’s completion of their 200th gig at the Øya festival in Oslo, Norway. Together the two bands jammed, improvising wildly, the last chords struck as the late Scandinavian summer sun was beginning to climb over the horizon. And then, with the inevitable arrival of light, the end was nigh.

Ulver worked periodically with Sunn O))) over the next four years, breaking down and building up the session’s overall sound. They brought in extant elements, trumpets, violins and viola, building on the theme of light. Curiously, as that sound formed, the band whose characteristic moody grasp for darkness and chaos became beholden to dawn. What in that description is not to love?

Breaking down any collaborative album project requires a healthy degree of scepticism. The natural curiosity is to answer the question, who contributed what to the mixture? Sunn O))) brings an unimpeachable level of credibility to the metal conversation. It is an arguable point (as most broad statements are) that they are the most influential creators of heavy music since the genre formed.

But so much of what occurs throughout the three tracks and 35-minutes of Terrestrials feels out of place for a Sunn O))) album. While the band usually prefers a brash wall of primordial sounds, vacillating between shrill and brutal, this record described as “live in improvisation” feels decidedly cinematic. There is a distinct ebb and flow to the song structures.

The opening track “Let There Be Light” builds slowly into a dank, Morricone dreamscape soundtrack to his apocalyptic posthumous western. The track was, in fact, the last recorded, named for the sunrise that concluded the fabled session. As the guitars open, overlaid with the swarm of violins, this song befits its namesake, evoking not just the dawn of another day but the breaking of eons. The second track, “Western Horn” is the shortest at nine minutes and change, filled with shrieking, quivering guitars and bass. The morbid tumult makes it the most comfortably familiar sequence on all of Terrestrials.

Lastly, “Eternal Return” features the only lyrics on the album, Kristoffer Rygg’s elliptical hymn to mankind’s long slog through prehistory. The Norwegian songwriter characterized the entire project, “like some lost pilgrim stretching for the sun” and no moment fits that description so well as when he clutches the microphone. As Rygg delivers his frightening vocal, pulses reverberate throughout the mix, suggestive of a type of Diaspora to sanity, ending up in a series of crunching drones. That ethereal light we grasp for is, after all, transient.

What does Terrestrials foretell? Perhaps this might be a bit naïve, but the album does not quite serve as the follow up to Sunn O)))’s 2009 LP Monoliths & Dimensions; not in a proper way, at least. In fact there are moments when the effort feels like Ulver’s work, with Sunn O))) offering meaningful contributions.

Some writers have called into question the seemingly overwrought patience evident all over Terrestrials. That criticism feels well, rather rash to me. For all of their crushing riffs and nihilistic lyrical content, the core of Sunn O)))’s brilliance is always the methodical approach. That delightful penchant for violence is merely a secondary trait. Every song in their catalog constructs and deconstructs with a unique, painstaking deliberation. Perhaps of all their trademarks, this is their most compelling of all: heavy music with an orchestral precision.

What glimpse does the record afford the Sunn O))) fan? While I delved into Terrestrials seeking a taste of familiarity, I came away scratching my temple. This is the least immediately satisfying album in the band’s catalog. And I am quite happy to report that because, on repeat immersions, with eyes closed, this record is pure delight.