No other band in extreme music today garners the “love ‘em or hate ‘em” label more than Sunn O))). Regardless of whether or not you consider their achievements to be “real” doom, or even “real” metal, Sunn has certainly done its part in thrusting drone directly into the extreme music spotlight. And while the band obviously owes a great deal of their success to the prototypal root-works laid down by the seminal Earth in the early 90s, it’s been Sunn O)))’s seemingly insistent preference to incorporate different outside collaborators from album to album that truly sets their achievements apart from their peers.
Over the course of five full-length albums, Sunn O))) has enveloped their trademark plate-tectonic-shifting drone with noise masters, bottom-end bass maulers, anomalous author/musicians, and numerous extreme vocalists, giving each subsequent release an idiosyncratic flavor that seems to (very slowly) float by unnoticed to the casual ear, but in truth, renders each achievement as separate and singular works to fans with a true penchant for the genre.
Altar, the project’s sixth full-length release, brings aboard a most welcomed new co-pilot to the drone-doomed ship: Japan’s heavy hittin’, heterogeneous sweethearts Boris, a band whose staggering amount of work over the past ten years has flitted between heavy, droney, rocky, and psychedelia, but can probably be best described as…well, strange. The merging of these two beasts has resulted in a record that incorporates SO much of each bands’ elements there really was no choice but to call the project Sunn O))) & Boris.
Altar kicks things off with “Etna”, a tune that sets out in familiar enough drone fashion, but by the 3-minute mark showcases the element which gives much of this record a more traditional song structure, and in the end makes Altar a clear candidate for Sunn’s most accessible record to date: DRUMS. Very real, very skillfully played, very heavy drums. Boris’ Atsuo has a percussive style quite similar to The Melvins’ Dale Crover, which isn’t at all surprising, considering his band swiped their name directly from the title of a Melvins song. “Etna” eventually drifts from Atsuo’s Crover-esque flailing into a brutally sludgy riff at the 5-minute mark, pegging it as the record’s most glaring balance of both bands’ distinctive sounds.
The follow-up, “N.L.T.”, is a short, simple “standing on the verge of a spooky forest” ambient palate cleanser before what has to be the record’s most surprising cut, “The Sinking Belle”. Folks, this little ditty is just damned beautiful. The sad, alluring vocals, courtesy of The Sweet Hereafters’ Jesse Sykes, mixed with the soft, tinkling piano and occasional slide-guitar makes this tune sound as if it’d fit just as snuggly on the latest western-tinged Earth record.
“Akuma No Kuma” brings Joe Preston and his bizarre fascination with robotic, synthed vocals to the forefront, giving things an obvious Thrones flavor before bleeding into the hallucinogenic, psyche warping “Fried Eagle Mind,” a number that could’ve been ripped directly from someone’s nightmare of a Japanese horror film.
The record closes with the much more traditional Sunn O))) styling of “Blood Swamp”, which features the trademark glacial riffs that could bring decay to the worlds largest standing Wooly Mammoth, and also presents a guest guitar appearance (I believe in the bizarre pluckings) by none other than bearded wizard Kim Thayil of Soundgarden fame.
When boiled down to its rudimentary essence, Altar is unmistakably a Sunn O))) record. It has all the elements that have caused people to loathe them over the years, and it does so unabashedly, once again. However, the addition of Boris to the mix has given this outing a very welcomed twist to the formula that makes Altar a more palatable listen for those folks hovering just outside the drone realm. It’s not quite as dark as the previous Black One, but it still packs one hell of an incredibly slow punch. If you’ve always been on the fence in regards to Sunn O))), but can’t help but feel interested, I’d say Altar is the perfect place to start.