Under The Volcano: Sunn O))) in Basel - 9 October 2019

A sure-fire sign that Basel's Kaserne continues to provide for its more experimental-leaning fans was its hosting of doom metal and drone band Sunn O))). Formed in 1998 in Seattle and pronounced simply as "sun", the quintet centered around Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson embody the atmosphere and attitude of dark drone music with their hypnotic vast soundscapes, glacial tonal shifts, and doom and gloom appearance.



Caspar Brötzmann

Before they took to the stage, however, the crowd was treated to an oppressively dark and violently loud 45-minute solo performance by German avant-garde guitarist Caspar Brötzmann, whose only lyrics came five minutes before the end of his set, comprising lines such as "there is no light".

Active since the 1980s and well-regarded, despite a lack of wider recognition afforded to the likes of Swans and Steve Albini's Big Black, Brötzmann delivered his atonal, lumbering bass solo like an angsty 26-year-old in a downtown studio apartment, attempting to wrangle the loudest and most distorted noises possible from his guitar-turned-ancient-monster, much to the chagrin of his neighbours. Sparse blues-like phrases and singular strums that would be better measured on the Richter scale were interspersed with Brötzmann striking the bridge of his instrument to produce a sound akin to the pounding on a massive medieval door. Before long, his time was up and he left the stage.











The stage remained inhabited by the fifteen or so towering amplifier setups brandishing the logo that inspired the name of the band who was about to use them. Where Brötzmann's sound was loud but clear, the view presented to the Kaserne audience promised a literal wall of sound.

Sunn O)))

Before the Blast

With the interval having been used to completely fill the Rossstall I with both people and machine-made fog, the lights gave way to darkness and the anticipation was as palpable as the hazy air that now obscured the entrance to the room. There was no escape. Red lights burst into that inky blackness as Sunn O))) emerged from behind their wall of amplifiers, cloaked in dark hooded robes as if they were members of a satanic doomsday cult. Raising their guitars high into the air as offerings to a vengeful god, O'Malley and Co. struck their first annihilistic chord to produce the unmistakably gloom-ridden and apocalyptic sound that Sunn O))) has come to represent in the contemporary drone metal scene.

Categorizing their music, let alone describing it, is a challenge. Perhaps "post-music" would be an apt term to capture their output, particularly live. Lacking any discernible rhythm or melody outside of the reverberating, pulsing beats which result from interfering sound waves of subtly differing frequencies, Sunn O))) conjure a hypnotic and harmonic atmosphere rather than a recognizable song structure.

So much so, in fact, that their live set consisted entirely of a two-hour uninterrupted monolithic assault of oscillating drone sounds and intermittent executioner-style strums, with the musicians raising their fists like antennas to heaven before bringing them crashing down to send another destructive shockwave of tuned noise out from their wall of speakers and into their audience's eardrums.

The experience itself was indeed hypnotic, as the crowd barely moved or cheered for the duration of their set, simply allowing the ebb and flow of the sound waves to pull them in and massage them to their bones. This must be what a lawnmower feels like to an ant.











The Eye of the Storm

As plumes of fog bellowed out from smoke-machines situated all around the front of the room like the pyroclastic flow from a volcanic explosion, the feeling of being right underneath an active volcano was made all the more tangible by the building heat and acerbic yellow lighting that now dominated the packed room. One hour into Sunn O)))'s expansive set, the roaring dragon-breath distortion of doom was pierced by the melancholic timbre of a lone trombone, punching a hole in both the wall of sound and the wall of fog surrounding the hooded musicians who continued their ritualistic guitar-lifting, arm-raising, executioner-strum routine. The trombonist, bathed in the sulfuric light, held out his open palm in front of him, either as if to push the sonic blast radius even further into the crowd, or in a futile attempt to halt some oncoming force of destruction before eventually fading back into the fog from whence he came.












Somehow it slowly became apparent that the end was nearing as the music subtly built to a glacial and yet fiery climax, resulting in one of the as-of-yet anonymous musicians attaching his guitar to the ceiling and letting it remain suspended in the air as he raised his arms in the symbolic pinnacle of worship and offering to a higher power.

The paganistic ritual performance drew to a close as the final phasing drone reverberated throughout the hall (and presumably throughout the skeletons, and later tinnitus, of the many crowd members). The first sounds of silence were a shocking contrast to the noise level that had been the norm for the prior two hours, followed quickly by exultant cheers and applause from the enthralled audience. It was clear that the experience had been greatly enjoyed, even if it was capital-E experimental and something to send the concerned mothers of the world running away in fear.











The bright orange on-lights of the stacks of amplifiers pierced the fog, resembling the several lit cigarette tips scattered throughout the crowd. The band finally drew back their hoods and revealed themselves as the ghoulish conjurers of the evening's sonic landscape. Rather fittingly, one of the supporting musicians bore more than a passing resemblance to the late Christopher Lee. With a kind gesture of thanks in the form of palms pressed together and many a raised hand in return from the ecstatic crowd, Sunn O))) departed the stage, presumably to be reabsorbed into the Earth and dwell in their underground lair of fire and brimstone.

If you've ever stared at a lava lamp and wished it could growl at you with the ferocity of a jumbo jet taking off for the duration of a feature-length film, you were probably there at the Kaserne anyway. If not, you might consider joining Sunn O)))'s loyal fanbase, though it takes a special kind of loyalty (and wallet) to fork out CHF 400.- for a limited-edition guitar pedal in order to emulate the band's so-dense-light-cannot-escape-it distortion.

A truly unique evening.

- Miles Prinzen

Photos by Anna Wirz