Altar is a bona fide collaboration between powersonic drone throners Sunn 0))) and Japan's experimental rockist thunderhead Boris. Outfitted by the Southern Lord label (Sunn 0)))'s vanity plate) in an oversize digipack with a four-color, 12-page booklet, with black ink on gold metallic pages, it's a handsome package to say the least. When looking through the credits one sees not only the bandmembers from Boris -- Takeshi, Wata, and Atsuo -- listed alongside the Sunn 0))) boys Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, but a surprising array of guests as well, including Joe Preston of Thrones, High on Fire, Earth, and Melvins fame; Earth's Steve Moore; Alan Dubin from O'Malley's other gig, Khanate; Rex Ritter of Jessamine; Kim Thayil (formerly of Soundgarden); and -- of all people -- Jesse Sykes and her bandmates Phil Wandscher and Bill Herzog from the Sweet Hereafter. For starters, five of these six cuts are meant to be listened to at spine-dislodging volume on a decent-to-great set of headphones, or at least a set of speakers cranked to Valhalla with your head placed firmly between them. This baby is really, really slow. All of it. Slower than any record by O'Malley and Anderson's main project. Metalheads may be outrageously bummed at how turtle-like the pace of this set is. But the point is HEAVY, not necessarily "metal." It's drenched in weight and needs volume to lift it off the ground -- and so you can hear everything in this dense mix. When joined together in all their downtuned glory, these guitars and synthesizers actually emit new microphonic tones. The low, pulsating frequencies hack out a space in the wall of drone and offer a new set of tonalities. (Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham did something akin to this with their guitar-and-bass orchestras, but they were going for the high end of the sonic spectrum and used anywhere from 15 to 100 guitars, all tuned differently and strummed in staggered chord progressions, to get those new sounds.)
Remarkably, this triangle of guitars with drums -- Sunn 0))) normally doesn't use them -- and synths feels natural here and, using only one or two chords, adds real tension to "Akuma No Kuma," the album's hinge piece. A single low chord, so low and droning as to offer discomfort, is joined by a vocodered voice (Preston) in that same tone (almost like a Tibetan monk chanting prayers gutturally, from the bottom of the throat), which gradually begins to unfold into a minimal modal if not melodic lyric frame. Atsuo's "lead drums," a sextet of different synthesizers, a trombone, and percussion (including a chilling gong), become an elliptical, bone-rattling, jaw-grinding drama that seeks resolution. It doesn't get it; these combined elementals are merely mutated into other phases that also remain unfinished. Elsewhere, on "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)," Sykes croons cinematically (think of a drugged-out Julee Cruise on the Blue Velvet soundtrack) to an uneasy, fractured waltz tempo -- not ushered or guided by drums, but the drone of a lone guitar chord, a series of minimal fills on piano, and Wata's space-echoing guitar that evolves into yet another chord, but returns with the same tension. She is a chanteuse here, offering a kind of hunted whispering beauty -- she'd be right at home with David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti -- to the halted, faltering proceedings that seems to slip into ether as the band begins a slow but deliberate disintegration behind and on top of her singing. When her vocals are multi-tracked on the refrains, the tune moves off the map and digs deep into the consciousness of the listener; it erases every bit of the song that preceded the moment she finds herself in. It disappears in an echoey series of traces and figures, but there's no body left.
"Fried Eagle Mind" allows Wata the lead vocal -- if one can even call it that, since it seems to come out of the disembodied textures of the music. Without drums, accompanied only by partially by guitars and a pair of synths that utter and stutter more than speak, it creates a ghostly ambience that has nothing to do with Eno's idea of "ambient music." This stuff is impossible to ignore; you can't go about your business when you are melting into a substanceless goo in your chair. The final cut, "Blood Swamp," a nearly 15-minute exercise that evolves from the ominous sound of a shimmering gong, a quintet of guitars, and a pair of synthesizers, is one where the "drone" is taken to its own place of erasure and disappearance entering the drone of silence -- which in and of itself, because of all that's preceded it, is heavy as well. Each series of droning tonalities and tuned-out modes wraps into each developing one, and the hot volume and sonic palette expand into something akin to oblivion. It is not blissful. It is a music of controlled excess, charged with eroticism, terror, death, and transcendence. It is the sound of a horror film unfolding as reality in the dreams of the filmmaker. But it is so utterly brutal in showing you the dark side of its true beauty, so complete in its application of violent stillness, that it cannot be resisted or captured. It can only overcome the listener with its unstated will to domination of the unforgiving nature of sound itself. [There is a mail order-only edition of the set, machine-numbered to 5,000 copies. It contains an extra disc that contains a single 28-minute drone track.]