Published on 28th August 2014
Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials
Four years in the making, Terrestrials is a collaboration between two beacons of alternative music, shining their black light at one another across the vastness of the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean and the entire uncaring width of the North American continent. In the West Corner, from Seattle we have Sunn O))), purveyors of some of the heaviest sounds around, and forerunners of a neat little genre that goes by the name of drone metal. Of course, that only merely begins to describe their canon, but labels are useful for the uninitiated. Unfortunately using the epithet “drone metal” is likely to have lost me at least half my audience already, but for those who remain we move across to the other side.
Reflecting the darkness right back at the American collective from the East Corner are Norway’s Ulver, a band who started out as black metal, a description that is equally if not more off-putting than “drone metal”, and became, over the course of several albums, simply indefinable. I can only refer you to the utterly majestic Messe I.X – IV.X for proof.
The main contributors, the duo that is Sunn O))) and all four of the current line up of Ulver, are not credited with the instruments they played on the CD cover, and one must assume that they all played everything, if “playing” is a suitable term for manipulating sound via software of synthesiser. The pedantic among us can work it all out on the internet if we are so inclined, I know I did. However, the supporting musicians are credited, as “Ghost Appearances” but their roles are far from spectral, particularly the trumpet of Stig Espen Hundsnes, and Tomas Pettersen’s occasionally thunderous drums.
Let There Be Light oh so slowly awakens, the Sun, in portrait on the cover, “captured in the wavelength of hydrogen alpha light”, rising increment by increment over the still primordial horizon. The orchestral sweep of Philip Glass married to early Tangerine Dream’s sweeping epic cosmic opera paints a picture of an alien yet oddly familiar world, still going through seismic birth pangs. Keening horns denote a shift in tone as the monstrous rumble of a leviathan Sunn O))) drone joins Ulver’s chamber orchestra from another dimension. This is space rock, baby, but not as you might think you know it. The piece progresses at a stately, near funereal pace, as the solar centre now burns through the still thin atmosphere. In the finale victorious horns herald a triumphal and righteous crescendo.
The reawakening inherent in sunrise is depicted with a totally different interpretation in the video below, where the ritualistic and ceremonial nature of the music (a different mix from the album version) is seen as a death/rebirth metaphor. And that’s the beauty of art, everyone has their own vision.
Western Horn exists in another plane, eerie synth lava bubbles broiling through the molten iron drone, the harmonics belying the slight discordance of the main theme. Such is the dense layering of Terrestrials that it works – boy, does it just – not only at teeth-rattling volume, but also as background, for it is a rare example of musique concrete that works on many levels. Electric piano provides the top line but it is also part of the labyrinthine mix and does not dominate, but merely adds a different texture. Eventually buried under looped distorted and controlled feedbacking guitars, the shaman gently fades away, leaving a miasma of swirling notes in his wake.
Eternal Return features the only vocal of the album, I believe from Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg, and it is reprinted on the sleeve in all its impressionistic glory, drawing images of desert exile and evil summonings. Here the guitar plays us in on an almost conventional melody filtered through the melded single mind of Ax Genrich and Manuel Gottsching amid more keyboard embellishments, akin to Echoes-era Pink Floyd’s evil brother, buried away in cellar out of sight and mind. It is some seven and a half minutes before the sonorous vocals appear, cleverly entwined but not buried in the mix so that the louder you play the track the easier they are to spot. Sung over a low note piano motif and a repeated synth figure, the voice eventually breaks free, pleading with the elements. Visceral is an over-used adjective in music reviewing, but that is exactly what this is. The piece morphs into a space opera with the violin and viola adding a plaintive layer of melancholy.
The only thing wrong with this album is its short running time. Apart from that it is the kind of huge undertaking one would expect from these two giants of the experimental and alternative universe, and, being far more familiar with Ulver than Sunn O))), it makes me want to delve deeper into the American band’s output. As for Ulver, this record is as near perfect a follow up to Messe I.X – IV.X as you could wish for. A thoroughly marvellous racket!
We hear there is a Sunn O)))/Scott Walker collaboration in the offing – now that should be seriously frightening – bring it on!
01. Let There Be Light (11:24)
02. Western Horn (9:35)
03. Eternal Return (14:08)
Total Time – 35:14
Jørn H. Sværen
– Ghost Appearances
Ole-Henrik Moe – viola
Kari Rønnekleiv – violin
Stig Espen Hundsnes – trumpet
Tomas Pettersen – drums
Record Label: Southern Lord
Year Of Release: 2014