Images courtesy of Louis Loizou
Ever breath a frequency? Ever felt the air pressure shift around you, sound becoming a tactile experience, jaw shaking in your head? Complimentary ear plugs and warning of “it might get loud” might have hinted as to the manner of the night’s events, but no amount of warning can prepare you for quite how loud it can get.
For those unaware, Sunn O))) are giants of drone metal – rejecting all semblance of melody and rhythm in favour of walls of texture and punishing volume. Formed in 1998, the band have reached a level of cult reverence amongst fans of experimental music – cult being the key word here, as some view the experience with an almost ritualistic mysticism. This was the last in a series of events curated by Radio 6’s Mary Anne Hobbs for the Manchester International Festival, and certainly drew a crowd befitting of the occasion.
It’s four in the morning in an empty train station, broken neon flickers on the wall, a heavy cloying air – that unmistakable smell of rubber and heat – is hanging in the back of your throat; an inexplicable dread builds around you. A freight-train comes squealing through the station, gone as quickly as it arrived, and you watch its red tail lights disappear into the night. This sparse industrial soundscape was masterfully conjured by Manchester duo, Demdike Stare, who opened with a DJ set of dark ambient, industrial techno, and power electronics; moving away from the whirring synths and eclectic rhythmic percussion of their most recent release, Wonderland, they built a hypnotic tension in the room with layers of rumbling bass and wailing feedback. This was horror as sound, a slow creeping horror, as repulsive as it was alluring – a car crash in stop frame, a flaming pier in the distance.
Sunn O))) transformed the room from anxious cityscape to hammer horror film set – soupy fog swirling in eddies around ancient trees, pagan ritual, moonlight clearing – it was pure Shakespearian theatrics. A silence fell on the room as Mayhem singer, Attila Csihar, took to the stage, his figure shrouded in heavy robes and wreathed in smoke. As campy as it sounds, there was a startling sincerity amongst the pomp and circumstance. Csihar had a religious weight to his presence, a Lovecraftian monasticism; despite my aversion to dramatics, it was hard not to be taken in by the ceremony of it all.
Their set was composed of several tectonic movements, starting with Csihar’s incredible acapella, an operatic mix of Mongolian throat singing and Gregorian chanting. Slowly, other hooded figures crept on stage, which was, at this point, drowned in mist, and the noise began. If you think you’ve heard loud, you haven’t, not like this. This was sound as a wall, sound you could feel in your bones – the weight of gravity pulled closer with each pulsing note, swaying the crowd on their feet. This was less so a concert than an act of asceticism; enveloped in pulsing resonance it was impossible to think – a forced state of meditation was thrust upon us, and we went willingly. I’ve no idea how long I stood there, stock still, gazing at the apparitions gliding about the stage – my phone said it lasted an hour and half, but it was at once an instant and an eternity. In a final act of rapture, Attila appeared adorned with mirrors, a glowing figure above us, crown of thorns and all – this was Golgotha, and he, an unholy Christ cast down from the cross. As the set ended, the theatre of it all was brought into light – a grandiose occult drama of noise.
I left shaking, and with a slight urge to sacrifice a goat.