Sunn O))) & Boris - Altar (Southern Lord 2xCD)

Probably thee most highly anticipated doom-related release of the year, the inevitable meeting between drone metal titans Sunn O))) and Boris. They've toured together and put out eachother's releases (okay more like the Sunn guys put out Boris releases) but never appeared in recorded form together until now. It's been about slightly less than a year since the initial announcement of the collaboration, and in the meantime both bands' popularity has increased considerably, particuarly Boris who have somehow become Pitchfork Media darlings and are now apparently the metal band that it's "okay" to listen to (if your playlist usually consists of Of Montreal and the Shins, for example). Expectations, you say? What's all this about expectations? In the end it didn't really matter what showed up as the final product, it'd still sell tremendously well in whatever format the labels chose to release it (I believe there's a single CD version, this double-disc version featuting a bonus track with Earth's Dylan Carlson, a forthcoming triple-LP release and a Japanese issue on the Inoxia Records label - and don't forget to buy the shirt!). Everybody wins! Well, if you're in the band and getting a cut of the profits I mean.
So what did wind up on the disc? Well, an interesting mix to say the least. This album is inherently disappointing. You can't not be disappointed by it. The two names together sounds like a match made in heaven, but the reality is that the two bands don't need eachother - and they know it. In fact, the only time when all five members play together unabated is on the opening track "Etna". For the remaining five tracks, a multitude of guests are called upon to attempt to add some flavor to the mix. It smacks slightly of desperation, but I guess they had to try something right? And if "Etna" is what an hour's worth of just the five members going at it would've sounded like, the guest appearances were probably for the better...not to say it's a particularly bad track, just rather uneventful. It sounds like a track from Sunn's "00 Void" or "Flight of the Behemoth" albums with Boris' Atsuo throwing some drum fills over top. Aside from that, it's all formless and never gels despite lasting close to ten minutes. Atsuo appears again on the next track playing gong and bowed cymbal alongside Bill Herzog on upright bass. Again, nothing remarkable and essentially a recreation of sectors already mined by dark ambient/industrial heads like Lustmord, MZ. 412, Vidna Obmana, and so on. Kinda reminds me of "Sin Nanna" from Sunn's "Black One" - inconsequential at best. "The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)" is undoubtably the track that'll catch most people's attention, simply because it sounds so foreign to the drone metal omniverse (well I could see Boris leaning in this direction but certainly not Sunn). It starts out very similar to something from Earth's "Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method" album, with a somber drum beat and dissonant guitar plodding alongside a melancholic piano until Jesse Sykes's vocals come in and set the tone for a dramatic, mournful drone-turned-pop-song anthem. You'd really have to hear the track yourself to understand how alien it is, but it's safe to say the over-the-top delivery and lyrics will either strike you as touching or hilariously absurd (I've heard more than few people dismiss it as "pussy metal")...I'm somewhere in the middle leaning toward the former. What can I say, I'm just a hopeless romantic. A song like "The Sinking Belle" is probably the last thing that I would've imagined when I pictured a Sunn/Boris collaboration, so hats off to them for that I guess. The following "Akuma No Kuma" is essentially a reimagination of a guitar-drone epic played out on synthesizers: Sunn's Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, Tos Nieuwenhuizen, Troy Swanson, Randall Dunn and Matt Dettmer all play various Moogs and synths while Atsuo takes the reins on the drum kit and Joe Preston (Thrones, ex-Melvins, ex-High on Fire) and Steve Moore and vocoder and trumpet touches, respectively. The results are like a severly-digitalized early Sunn or Boris piece, although I never would've guessed there were so many people playing on it if I hadn't read the liner notes. Seems like the same thing could've been accomplished with just one synth, but I guess that takes the fun out of everything. Atsuo's drumming is probably the high point but otherwise the track isn't nearly as noteworthy as one would've hoped it might be. Boris siren Wata adds her vocals (for the first time ever!) to a track on "Flied Eagle Mind" which I'm convinced is a veiled reference to 70's Japanese psychedelic fuzz rock obscurists Flied Egg...well, in title mainly, not so much in approach. Sure the track features a bunch of fuzz from the guitars of Wata, O'Malley, Takeshi and Anderson (in addition to still more synths from a bunch of the players mentioned above) but Wata's endless intoning of the word "dream" until it stretches out into a ghostly whisper does absolutely nothing to recall Deep Purple knock-offs from overseas. The guitars build with consistent urgency throughout the track until they're finally about to burst wide open...but the track cuts off before that can happen. About the only point in the whole hour's worth of material where the two bands finally approach the form you were expecting/hoping to hear is on the last track "Blood Swamp", and it's one of the most simplistic: take Sunn's hulking bass-y drones and add in a generous helping of Boris' psychedelic rock tendencies screaming over top (aided by ex-Soundgarden axeman Kim Thayil and Tos and Rex Ritter's Moogs) and you finally have a Sunn O))) and Boris song that doesn't sound like too many cooks spoiling the kitchen, or a futile exercise in experimentation for the sake of it. On the other hand though, I'm not so sure an entire album of this would've held up over an hour...because then people would've asked for more and we'd be back at square one.
By far the best bang for your buck is found on the bonus "prelude" disc "SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas": a single song bearing the title "Her Lips Were Wet With Venom" and also bearing Earth mainman Dylan Carlson's incredible workmanship on the six-strings - I'm telling you he's a stroke away from genius if he isn't there already. Carlson totally works everybody over by sending out huge gobs of the country-tinged spark he's made his trademark since returning with last year's "Hex". Not since Jon Catler's work with La Monte Young's Forever Bad Blues Band have I heard drone and rock coming together in such convincing fashion (then again one doesn't hear drone and rock coming together much at all). It's hard to write a whole summary on despite its half-hour length but I'll just say that even if you decide to skip over the album that you must download this track if you have a remote interest in either band. Most ballerific shit ever.
If you're a big enough Sunn O))) or Boris fan, you've already got this. If you're on the fence, well I'd say there are much better albums to check out from either band (the "White" albums and "00 Void" for the former and "Flood", "Feedbacker" and "Absolutego" for the latter) but if you've got those then you might derive some enjoyment from "Altar"...just don't expect it to be the be-all end-all drone metal magnum opus that it was (unintentionally) built-up to be. I guess expectations can be a bitch; I'm sure if this wasn't announced a year in advance and just slipped out one day by Southern Lord then it'd be easier to appreciate...but often it just sounds too unfocused. "Sinking Belle", "Blood Swamp" and of course "Her Lips Were Wet With Venom" are all bright spots though, and I wouldn't mind seeing the two groups having another go at it together in the future either. Also, kudos to Southern Lord on a top-notch packaging job...the CD sleeve is a sturdy cardboard double LP-style gatefold with raised lettering and a full-colour booklet affixed to the interior...and each disc comes in its own LP-style mylar slipcase which is another nice touch. I heard the 3xLP is coming out in February and it'll surely have an equally tasteful design job to match.


Blogger abe said...

The more I think about it, the more hacked off I am that I bought the single CD version, if the highlight of the whole fucking album is the Dylan Carson track.

Yeah I was a bit thrown by 'The Sinking Belle', but it's really starting to grow on me. Plus it's the only sunn related track I can actually play around my girlfriend.

11/10/2006 5:14 AM  
Blogger Outer Space Gamelan said...

Yeah, it's somewhat sad that the best part isn't even on the "actual" album itself. Anyway I'd just download it and leave it at that I guess. Or sell the single-CD version on eBay and buy the 2CD but that sounds like a bit of a hassle.

11/10/2006 12:09 PM  

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