The phrase ‘we live in strange times’ is one that we could have used for some years now… but 2020 has really sought to take this as its own. This year has seen many of us either in lockdown, or have our movements restricted, for some time now. And, as much of Europe goes into lockdown for a second time, we have to get used to the idea that the world as we knew it might take some time to come back to us.
For us music lovers this may well mean new ways of listening. No gigs and being limited to our home stereos has, to a great extent, lessened the social aspect of music; and those of us with families may well have resorted, as I have done, to grabbing time with noise cancelling headphones in order to listen without interruption.
However, these are more practical solutions whereas, for me, the very nature of listening to music has also changed. As regular readers will no doubt have guessed I like to listen to music intensely, and I like music that takes me on otherworldly journeys; whether that is imagining some sort of travel, or some sort of internal path that the sounds open up for me. In the last few months, though, I have come to think of being alone with music as a form of practice… a kind of a state of being… far more encompassing than ever before… as deep as I get into the best of the live performances I witness, but a different sort of deep.
I have been trying to put this experience into words for some time, but the feelings are always so ephemeral that I found it difficult to surface them. Until, that is, I bought a few records over the weekend that helped me to crystallise my ideas.
On the face of it there may be little that would seem to connect Sunn 0)))’s 2019 releases ‘Life Metal’ and ‘Pyroclasts’ with Adrianne Lenker’s ‘Songs’ and ‘Instrumentals’ albums; but in listening to them, and reading around the recording processes that took place in making them… there is something here about the nature of music which really spoke to me, something which I’m going to try to share through talking about these diverse works.
‘Life Metal’ & ‘Pyroclasts’ by Sunn 0)))
Sunn 0))) are a band I’ve come back to again and again over the years, I remember once listening to them all afternoon on a day off and being late to pick the kids up from school because their sound had left me somehow nailed to the sofa. Yes they are heavy, and yes they are extraordinarily powerful; and while they pummel you with their sonics there is something very musical about their work… and also something very raw and organic about their oeuvre.
First a word about the relationship between the two albums. I have to admit that I somehow missed ‘Life Metal’ and ‘Pyroclasts’ when they came out. However, I also think that I have found them at a time when I most needed to hear them. Both albums come from the same sessions, Sunn 0)))’s first, as far as I’m aware, with Steve Albini. The results are, to say the least, epic… a return to fundamentals after a number of, albeit excellent, collaborative diversions.
But if ‘Life Metal’ represents a stripped back Sunn 0))), then ‘Pyroclasts’ takes that process one step further. Apparently before and after each recording session the musicians involved would play for twelve minutes, during which time they would explore a single modal drone. Albini recorded these and four of them have made it onto this album.
These pieces, along with the manner in which they were recorded, take on the form of sonic invocations… a ritual which gets the band into the ‘sacred space’ of making music. So, as with any ritual, there has to be a form of practice around it that marks out this space… It is these ideas of invocation and practice which particularly interested me… the notion that when we listen to music… when we really listen to music, then there is somehow a liminal moment that takes us from the mundane of our everyday existence to something less fixed (insert your own psycological/ emotional/ spiritual term here). I often experience this state when listening to live music, and it is albums like ‘Pyroclasts’ which help me to get into the listening state now I’m stuck at home.
Each track here can, on its own, take me into the music… I feel as if I am right there! Each of them has a unique power attached to it which, if you sit with it, can truly transport you somewhere quite deep and ethereal. Listening to this album… really experiencing it… is just amazing, but is also just the right preparation for going into ‘Life Metal’.
You are starting at a deeper level, you somehow feel more prepared… there is now no going through any sort of pre-amble… you are ready to take that next step… into the depths of the earth with this hour plus of music which feels as heavy and substantial as the planet itself. This is some really powerful shit… you feel as if the band are channeling something fundamental: the very vibrations which make up our existence…. it’s like they go beyond the idea of music into some other realm altogether… to a state that has a purity within the darkness… the pure Obsidian from the torment of a volcano… a sense of peace and beauty from what, on the surface, seems to be something quite violent.
This image of the volcano is a good one, because this album is one that is performed on a grand scale, not in the sense that it is played by a symphony orchestra… but because it is heavy like the moving of tectonic plates are heavy… like the slam of Thor’s hammer is heavy, it represents the nature of existence on a macrocosmic scale… forging sonic topologies within our ritual space and giving us a huge sense of freedom within that space… which, during lockdown, is something that is hugely beneficial.
There is, therefore, a sense of reward here… a sort of psychological/ emotional/ spiritual endowment which inculcates itself deep inside you… a bonanza that can feed you for the rest of the day and moving onwards. This is certainly one of the reasons I listen to music… and definitely why getting to gigs is so important to me. After them you hold the experience through other events and times…. these Sunn 0))) albums collectively seem to do that for me.
‘Songs’ & ‘Instrumentals’ by Adrianne Lenker
Adrianne Lenker is someone who is new to me. However I think that it is fair to say that her music has had quite an impact on me in the short time that I have come to her sonic acquaintance. ‘Songs’ and ‘Instrumentals’ were recently released, in October 2020.
The albums were recorded during the early days of the pandemic in a one-room cabin in the woods of Massachusetts; where she went to stay following the cancellation of her band’s (Big Thief) tour, and after the break up of a relationship. The music she made there was captured onto tape (sometimes directly onto a Walkman) by recording engineer friend Philip Weinrobe.
Because of the geographic and emotional environment in which these recordings were made, they are very raw and stripped back. What is more, around each session Lenker would play extended improvisations on her guitar, two of which appear here as the ‘Instrumentals’ album (hopefully you are now beginning to see the link with Sunn 0)))!), allowing her feelings to take her on sonic journeys. These are such beautiful tracks, the second one in particular makes you feel as if you are there in that cabin with the wind chimes, sounds of wildlife, and rainfall evident on the recordings (as they are on the ‘Songs’ album on occasions as well), to the extent that I have had to check the weather outside here at home.
This, then, gives you a sense of being in a different sort of space, but one that is no less therapeutic. This is something that is quite amazing at a time when I personally am limited to my suburban house and it’s immediate surrounds. The sound of rain, in particular feels so fresh as it falls through trees and hits the undergrowth, so different to the rain here.
So as ‘Pyroclasts’ is to ‘Life Metal’, then ‘Instrumentals’ is to ‘Songs’. Both can be enjoyed to separately, but if you listen to one in the context of the other, then both come alive even more through a sort of gestalt process.
However, whereas ‘Life Metal’ is on a macrocosmic scale, ‘Songs’ is very much at the other end of the spectrum. There is a real sense of space and emptiness in these songs… an emptiness in terms of the space within the songs, which are mainly just Lenker and her guitar, with only the occasional overdub. But there is also a psychological/ spiritual/ emotional emptiness here which, when combined with the absence of others/ human interdependence/ the vagaries of modern life give these songs a powerful propellant especially in that ‘ritual space’ provided by the ‘Instrumentals’ music when played before it.
So while on one level this is an intensely personal album it is also about the sort of solitude which many of us will have experienced in this of all years, even when we are surrounded by others. This is conveyed through an attention to detail which I am sure was intensified by Lenker’s own sense of personal solitude… an emotional time which pours out of these songs.
So while the lyrics here are very personal, they seem to me to be full of broader truths about pain, loss and… well… existence that someone who is willing to really listen to this music will be able to take on board. In this sense, like the Sunn 0))) albums, Lenker achieves a sort of universal resonance with the combination of these sets; together with the means with which to access them.
I consider it to be some sort of fate that these four albums came into my consciousness over the same weekend, at a moment when I was contemplating the arrival of a second lockdown; and at a time when the days were getting colder and darker. Between them I feel that they are going to spend a lot of time on my stereo over the coming months. They will be an escape but, I think, also a way of coping and processing what is going on around me. They will be my refuge… a ritual space through which I can feed myself psychologically, emotionally, and maybe even spiritually. Each, I think, will find its right moments to come out and help me find the right solutions.
This might sound somewhat overblown, but the presence of ‘Pyroclasts’ and ‘Instrumentals’ is a testament to the depth with which these musicians make their music, and so why should we not listen to their output with the same earnestness. We all must be feeling the same sense of absence that Lenker brings here… we are all, to some extent, alone in that cabin in the woods. Yet we are also sometimes overwhelmed by the massive ideas that are inherent in Sunn 0)))’s output… together these albums cover many of these bases and help us to judge both or place in the world and our relationships within it.
A final comment I want to make is about the process with which these albums have been recorded. Lenker recorded directly onto tape, which was then spliced and edited; and the Sunn 0))) also arrives to us through an all-analogue recording technique… as such they are both at their most natural and immersive on vinyl which I shall be trying to do as much as possible; although they are also stunning on the digital platform through which I have shared them here.
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