Album Review : Sunn O))) - Dømkirke (2008)
Iconic American drone metal Sunn O))) are somewhat of an acquired taste. I like to say they come with an instruction manual. They're extremely popular and beloved and yet cause debates wherever they go: what are they doing exactly? Is that even music? These guitars sound exactly like my stomach burns, etc. My favorite Sunn O))) record is probably their recently reissued 2008 live album Dømkirke, which was somewhat of a revelation to me. It was the first time I heard the band on vinyl. If this album is available in that format only and for free online, it's by design. Experiencing Dømkirke on vinyl was a cornerstone moment in my relationship to Sunn O))) and music in general and today I'd like to share with you the passion I have for that record. If you want to get into Sunn O))), get a turntable and start with the majestic Dømkirke. The rest will take care of itself.
If you can't do that RIGHT NOW, keep reading.
Dømkirke is the word used for cathedral in Norway. The album consists in a one-time performance recorded in Bergen cathedral during a music festival. In a way, Dømkirke can never be fully experienced again. It happened only once: on March 18, 2007. I suppose it wasn't meant to be recorded either. Everything you hear on this album was conceptualized and delivered in a way that predates the commercialization of music. This is why it was recorded in a cathedral: a place that doesn't have the same relationship to time that we do. This is why the album is actually CALLED "catherdral" as well: it is music that's in the here an the now. It's available for hearing wherever Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson could upload it, but digital audio does a poor job at conveying what the experience of Dømkirke must've been like. For optimal enjoyment borrow a friend's turntable, turn all the lights off, pull the blinds and open up your mind. As usual, you can thank me later.
So, Dømkirke consists of four "songs" ranging from fifteen to eighteen minutes. The opener Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds? is performed by occasional vocalist and black metal legend Attila Csihar and an organ player only. If you have the privilege to hear it on vinyl in a quiet environment, it's immediately clear what they're doing: filling the airwaves. The song begins with a long organ chord that raises through the air like smoke. It doesn't let up until you're surrounded with sound and then Attila's voice kicks in, powerful and majestic like a ghost prowling the room. Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds? is simple and bare, yet the desired effect has a surreal gorgeousness to it. It's a sensory experience. I have no idea if the songs has any lyrics. Csihar seems to be talking at some point, but it could very well be gibberish. I didn't find any online. Lyrics are far from mandatory in Sunn O)))'s music anyway.
Cannon is a more traditional Sunn O))) track filled with the echoes of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson's guitars bouncing against the walls of Bergen's Cathedral. That's one thing with Sunn O))): walls of guitars are like a canvas they paint on. They love to experiment and it comes off differently on every album. There's a freakin' trombone on Cannon. Why? Because it fills the airwaves differently and delivers a different experience. Cymatics is perhaps the most difficult song on the record because of its complete lack of patterns and melodies. There are interesting electronic elements on it, which I believe are produced by a moog keyboard, but it's very "noise" in its nature. I like it but it goes somewhat against the desired effect in Dømkirke. It could've fitted on any other Sunn O))) record. The closer Masks the Aetmospheres features a clash of electronic and worship music at the beginning, only to be overtaken by droning guitars, celebrating the end of the exercise like the end of a mass. It's my favorite piece on the record along with Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds? because it's another memorable sensory experience.
Contemporary music fosters an intellectual and emotional relationship to audiences. A song seeks to evoke a particular emotion. Take Jesus Walks, by Kanye West for example, which is a song that I love. It is supposed to evoke courage in adversity. It is intended for religious people to seek courage in the scene of the Crucifixion in order to face problems bigger than themselves. It's a valid approach and I don't want to put it down, but it's not what Sunn O))) is going for in their music. The emotion has to stem from YOU. What they do is wrap you up in THEIR passion and fill the void around you with airwaves. Listening to Sunn O))) LOUD and on a good sound system is as close as you'll get to feel the universe around you and Dømkirke is one of their crowning achievements. It's really good to have bands who deliberately swim against the tide like this. I'm going to see them live on March 15 and I can't fucking wait. Apparently, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.