Every year, the various cultural venues of Bergen, Norway, unite to play host to the Borealis Festival, a celebration of the arts held every March. It’s an eclectic event–but the 2007 festival saw an especially ironic pairing: the city of Bergen, which was plagued throughout the 1990’s with series of heavy-metal related church burnings, invited Seattle-based drone kings Sunn O))) to play one of Norway’s most historic Gothic cathedrals–the 900-year-old Domkirke.
The controversy of this pairing was not lost on Bergen’s religious community, which tried to have the group barred from the venue. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful, because the Seattle duo achieved far more that March day in Bergen than just shaking some dust off a few pews: the resultant double LP, Domkirke, available in a strictly vinyl-only format by Southern Lord Records, is a watershed album for a new era of maturity in extreme music.
Joined by guest vocalist Atilla Csihar, electronics wizard Lasse Marhaug, and Earth’s Steve Moore on the church’s venerable pipe organ, the core duo of guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have created an unprecedentedly textural record, which owes as much to ambient composers in the league of Brian Eno and Mike Oldfield as it does to metal pioneers like St. Vitus or the Melvins.
In fact, album opener “Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds?” doesn’t even feature guitars at all–just fifteen-plus minutes of Moore plumbing the depths of the Domkirke’s organ, with Csihar’s vocals supplying a subtle drone, and then breaking free into a dramatic vibrato. The Gothic atmosphere persists, even as later tracks like “Cymatics” and “Masks the Aetmospheres” put more of O’Malley and Anderson’s beyond-heavy guitar work into the picture.
Much of this feel is premeditated, according to Borealis curator Nicholas Mollerhaug. He explains in the album’s liner notes:
“Our idea behind this concert was to commission a piece of music from Sunn O))) referring to the gothic Gregorian hymns of the Late Middle Ages…The Gregorian hymns of this time reflected the despair, the terrors and darkness of the world. Musically, the hymns consisted of long slow lines of unison melodies. The unisonity [sic], the dark mood and the slow melodic development are all elements that also can be traced back to Sunn O)))’s musical universe.
Mollerhaug has hit the nail squarely on the head here–the form, as much as the content, conjures up Domkirke‘s medieval mood. The opening track’s ominous three-note organ riff serves as a kind of theme for the album–“Cannon” finds the melody recycled by both a trombone part and a more strict guitar part; album closer “Masks the Aetmospheres” features a glacially slow section that touches on many of the same chords. Other cuts remind the listener of nothing so much as classic film soundtrack music–the dissonant atmospherics and sparse horn arrangement on “Cannon” have a distinct similarity to Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score to Chinatown, accumulating tension and energy which is dispersed by huge waves of guitar fuzz.
Despite these nods to classical music, Domkirke does make good on this Sunn O))) lineup’s extreme metal pedigree. Squealing guitar feedback and creepy electronic textures make up the brunt of “Cymatics”, and the heavy drone that slouches into the spaghetti-western twang of reverberant guitar that opens “Cannon” is literally floor-shaking. On “Masks the Ãtmospheres”, it’s Moore’s organ part that pushes the heaviness and depth of Sunn O)))’s low-end assault beyond any previous boundaries. However, the heaviest performances on the record easily come from Csihar’s corner-his vocals range from subliminal whispers to a Gregorian chant to a full-on operatic roar, which he forces to the breaking point at the climax of “Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds?”
This juxtaposition of monolithic heaviness and film-score sense of tension and release is telling of a new maturity for the group. Without eschewing the band’s signature detuned fuzz-meditations, Domkirke slyly sneaks in sounds and textures that are lost in the tectonic rumble of a pumping subwoofer-making this an increasingly musical (if not tuneful) offering for a group whose earliest records found their strength in the sound of the band and not its songs. Although Domkirke sees Sunn O))) sticking to its (admittedly inaccessible) guns, its increased dynamic content marks a great leap forward for a band that at one time could be easily mistaken for a Black Sabbath 7″ being played at the wrong speed.
The past two years have seen a flourishing of heady, mature music from American extreme metal groups-with increasingly complex and dynamic offerings from the likes of Jesu, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Earth. Domkirke exceeds expectations; it is an unexpectedly dynamic, labyrinthine document of texture and space, and sees Sunn O))) defend its title as one of the most prestigious (and prolific) bands of American metal.
The magnitude of this performance is not lost on the audience–who, for a good fifteen seconds after the final chord fades to nothingness, forget to clap.