A new album by Sunn 0))) is an event. Their plodding, downtuned, droning, overamped electric guitars and striking, spine-rattling frequencies are an all-encompassing encounter -- there is no middle ground: you love them or hate them. Even when working with collaborators, their basic sonic attack has been appended more than extended. But enlisting Steve Albini as producer on Life Metal changes the equation. Albini's microphone placement strategies, precision in detailing resistant overtones from overblown frequencies, and ability to push volume levels through the central nervous system, are the stuff of rock legend. He pushes Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley into an eternal riff zone that wrestles light from impenetrable darkness in celebrating the void.
Sunn 0)))'s aesthetic remains unchanged, even as their sound takes on new dimensions. The pair conceived the album in Anderson's L.A. studio, where they utilized synth innovator Tos Nieuwenhuizen in writing rehearsals before heading to Albini's Electrical Audio in Chicago. The four long works here account for half of this union's output: A second, more meditative album entitled Pyroclasts will be released later in the year. Sunn 0))) are joined on Life Metal by composer and frequent live collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir on vocals and electric cello, Silkworm's Tim Midyett on aluminum-neck bass and baritone guitars, and Anthony Pateras on pipe organ. Album-opener "Between Sleipnir's Breaths" commences with the aggressive snort and gallop of a horse -- Odin's eight-legged steed. The riff, twinned then quadrupled in ever-rising octaves, is at once punishing and transcendent. Feedback, bass, and brass sounds shudder, plod, and prod with rippling energy and menacing force before Guðnadóttir's vulnerable vocal chants and speaks lyrics derived from Aztec poets. They contrast ice and fire, death and eternity. The pipe organ helps usher in "Troubled Air," adding another textural element to the fluid, droning riff that is all but overcome by sustain and feedback, moving back and forth across glacial chord changes. While the guitars do their best to temper the storm, the organ bleats and rings, opening a dimension that affirms even as it afflicts. The 19-minute "Aurora" is introduced by Guðnadóttir's wordless alto singing, and covered over by the glacial riffs that claim everything in their path (the mix is so clear, you can hear Anderson's and O'Malley's fingers on the strings), creating an arresting yet nearly unbearable beauty. Finally, on the 25-minute "Novae," staggered drone riffs roar through, churning and roiling in the blackness with a constant, unrelenting pace. Layers of unidentifiable sonics, double-step overtones, octave drones, pockets of feedback, sustain and tension, create a cavern for the riffs and envelop the listener; who's transported through airless waves of sound that gradually transform into blinding shards of blackened light, and are caressed by a low, droning cello that echoes long after the recording has concluded. Life Metal is the dawning of a new phase for Sunn 0))), one that resonates with more power and complexity than anything in their catalog.