Review: Sunn O))) – Pyroclasts
Pyroclast (noun) – a fragment of detrital material jettisoned by volcanic activity.
Fresh from the release of Life Metal in April, drone metal colossus Sunn O))) returns with Pyroclasts. Where Life Metal was the album originally written and intended for release, Pyroclasts derived from a series of what their press release terms “improvised modal drone[s]” the band would work through either before or after a full day’s work in the recording studio.
Intended as a sister or “shadow” album to Life Metal, Pyroclasts stands out as an oddity in the Sunn O))) catalog. The band has had albums, Life Metal among them, that could easily qualify as career highlights—Black One and Monoliths and Dimensions immediately leap to mind—but never before has Sunn O))) documented what you might call their “process.” What little material I’ve seen so far about the Pyroclasts recording raises more questions than it answers; just how improvised and how planned were these improvised modal drones? Did the band have an intended final result, or were these recordings an accident of circumstance? Were they an exercise intended to build a mood for the recording of Life Metal, or were they intended to be a release all their own from the outset? Even after repeated listens, answers to these questions remain elusive.
From a compositional standpoint, Pyroclasts is absurdly simple. That sense of tectonic motion guiding tracks like “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths” and “Troubled Air” on Life Metal is almost entirely absent here. Where most post-rock and post-metal is built on a repeated formula of building and releasing tension, the four tracks that make up Pyroclasts are instead an exercise in constant, increasing pressure. It’s all tension with no release until an abrupt cut to silence marks each song’s end. Opening track “Frost” is a representative sample; it’s eleven minutes of shifting feedback that builds from a minute of relative quiet to ten subsequent minutes of a series of minute patterns; guitars in the left and right channels progressively go into and out of phase with each other as the listener is crushed between them. Small melodic elements appear like fissures in the earth, only to be swallowed again beneath the weight of the track as a whole.
As with the rest of the Life Metal sessions, Sunn O))) main men Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson were joined by T.O.S. Nieuwenhuizen, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and Tim Midyett. Rather than pursue the expansive qualities that marked Life Metal proper, the music on Pyroclasts covers more limited harmonic territory in a fashion that reminded me more of György Ligeti’s exercises in expanding and contracting polyphony than traditional harmonic or melodic structure. Here I think O’Malley’s experience performing the work of experimental composer Alvin Lucier is instructive—this is music that exists at the margins between sound itself and its existence in physical space, where harmonic overtones rise and fall in shifting sequence. Despite dealing primarily in titanic volume and monstrous feedback, on Pyroclasts Sunn O))) exercise absolute control over their medium and wring it for all it’s worth.
Added to this narrowed structural focus is a sharp reduction in the more overt contributions of Nieuwenhuizen, Guðnadóttir, and Midyett. Unlike Life Metal, Pyroclasts is entirely instrumental, removing Guðnadóttir’s simultaneously elegant and uncanny vocals from the equation. Instead, Guðnadóttir brings her cello to the fore, melding her instrument’s unusual sonic palette with the combined guitar feedback of Anderson and O’Malley on “Frost” and “Kingdoms.” Nieuwenhuizen’s keyboards and Midyett’s baritone guitar are typically buried beneath, adding color around the margins but otherwise not taking over as primary melodic instruments as they sometimes did on Life Metal.
With four tracks featuring predetermined length, limited instrumentation, and little variety in composition, Pyroclasts often more closely resemble variations on a theme than a full album in its own right. “Kingdoms” comes the closest of the four to an actual melody, with what to my ears sounds like Guðnadóttir and Midyett each briefly taking turns stepping out from behind O’Malley and Anderson to provide flashes of color that mix, clash, and finally merge with the overarching drone. “Ascension” comes the closest to matching the oftentimes ominous feel of passages from Life Metal or earlier material from Black One or Flight of the Behemoth. Compared to Pyroclasts, those albums seem positively cluttered—without the vocals or electronics from the usual Sunn O))) collaborators, the focus is instead on the primal noise that has always been the heart of O’Malley and Anderson’s pet project.
While that might make Pyroclasts sound like a throwback to early recordings like ØØ Void, here the band’s collaboration with engineer Steve Albini makes the crucial difference. Like Sunn O))), Albini has built a career from crafting noise into music. Whatever you make of the music produced from these sessions, the recording is impeccable. I listened to Pyroclasts on headphones, my home stereo, and built-in computer speakers, and on each I felt like I was in the room as the drones washed over and through me.
This still leaves the question mark of the album’s title. Are these tracks castoffs, literal detritus from Life Metal that happened to see the light of day? Are they fully realized compositions expelled from the collective burst of creativity that was the Life Metal sessions? Without more time to fully digest their impact, I can’t rightly say. Although Sunn O))) intended for Pyroclasts to serve as a sister or shadow album to Life Metal, with each new listen Pyroclasts strikes me as a fully realized document in its own right. While I will still give the nod to Life Metal as the better album for now, Pyroclasts deserves to be treated individually and on its own substantial merits.