No matter how many times you’ve heard their albums, regardless of how much you’ve spent on a high quality sound system or pair of headphones, nothing can prepare you for experiencing Sunn O))) live. Signs blue tacked to the wall on the way in were probably the best indicator of what you were about to undergo: “Anyone who wishes to take a break from tonight’s event is welcome to use the downstairs club room… Please don’t hesitate to ask for any assistance.”
Founded in Seattle during the mid-90s by Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, they began life as an Earth tribute band, operating under the name Mars, before laying down their own particular sound on albums such as 2005’s Black One and 2009’s critically acclaimed Monoliths & Dimensions. Self-described as “power ambient”, their blend of doom and drone with black metal has created some of the loudest and heaviest music around today.
Making their return to The Ritz five years after they shook its foundations, Sunn O))) were invited to headline the Dark Matter series of shows curated by Mary Anne Hobbs as part of the biennial Manchester International Festival. Supported by a DJ set from local dark ambient duo Demdike Stare, the evening would also see a one-off collaboration between Sunn O))) and light designer Stuart Bailes, who was selected by Mary Ann Hobbs to work across all Dark Matter shows hosted by Gorilla and The Ritz.
Performing using a quadraphonic PA system, there was literally no escaping the bone shaking volume unless you left The Ritz altogether. Ear plugs were a must for a large portion of those in attendance, especially if you were at the front hoping to catch a glimpse of the band and their army of amplifiers through the thick fog which enveloped the venue. Pumped out for a good 20-25 minutes before the show began, it quickly became difficult to see even the person right next to you.
What we witnessed was an epic form of ritualistic theatre, soundtracked by some of the most bone crunching guitar sounds you’re ever likely to hear. Beginning with a 10 minute incantation from Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar, it was an epic 1 hour 30 minute journey through the world of Sunn O))) which ended with Attila looking like a cross between Hellraiser and Sub Zero, sporting a costume covered in large pieces of broken mirror, lasers attached to his body and a headpiece with protruding spikes.
Working in unison with the creeping fog, their music hung heavily in the air for what felt like an eternity, gradually wearing you down throughout the evening. Witnessing Sunn O))) live is a real test of endurance, with some people looking visibly shaken as we approached the final third of the performance, which largely consisted of three or four extended pieces, all merged into one giant whole.
Whether or not you end up “enjoying” a Sunn O))) show, it’s certainly not an experience you’re likely to forget in a hurry. It may be loud, it may be heavy, it may be brutal, oppressive and absolutely unforgiving. You may even end up feeling a little bit sick, slightly terrified and get on the wrong train, but for any fans of experimental guitar music it has to be done at least once. There really is nothing else like it.