Review of Soused by Sunn 0)))
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’ Malley and Greg Anderson collaborated on a record with Scott Walker when looking at Sunn 0)))’s career arc. The Seatle based off-shoot of stoner metal heavyweights Goatsnake and Burning Witch became its own ambitious project named after an amplifier brand and punning on affiliated band Earth. Their dueling droning guitars gained notoriety as both punishing and cathartically blissful, and their influential record label Southern Lord is a bastion for metal of the underground and uncompromising variety. In live performances, they don black robes partially hiding their long black wizard beards. They are frequently given to worshipping their multitude of amplifiers set up on stage. Their presence is part campy theatrics, part serious music exploration, with an appreciation for the music lying somewhere in the middle.
However, this is not their first collaborative record. On 2006’s Altar, Sunn 0))) brought Japanese rockers Boris into their orbit successfully melding their sound into more of a rock framework and instrumentation. In 2011, they released Iron Soul of Nothing, an ambient “remix” of the band’s Void 00, with British avant-garde and industrial pioneer Steve Stapleton’s Nurse with Wound outfit. Earlier in 2014, they released Terrestrial with avant-metal enthusiasts Ulver, which sounded like an afterthought for both sides. In the trajectory of collaboration partners, O’Malley and Anderson have more recently sided with their avant-garde appreciation rather than their metal sensibilities, choosing to challenge and confront their listeners with subversions of their own sound. Then there’s the latest collaboration with Scott Walker, a vocalist as enigmatic and confusing a history as anybody else in music.
Scott Walker first found fame as a teen idol and then as a member of The Walker Brothers, riding the wave of the British Invasion in the mid-60s. After that breakup, he started a locally successful solo career as a crooner in the style of Frank Sinatra but with darker lyrics. After Scott 4 (1969), he went into a creative reclusion, flirting with brief Walker Brothers reunions and half-hearted attempts at country records. Starting in the mid-1980s, he reemerged as a solo voice working within an avant-garde framework and has since put out obtuse and abstract compositions centered on his theatrically trained baritone. His last three records, Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), Bish Bosch (2012) are seen as a trilogy and full immersion into post-modernist compositions combining gothic theatrics, impenetrably dense synthesizer droning, and lyrics curating topics like politics, philosophy, history, science and childhood.
Walker’s second career as a vocalist stylistically fits between Laurie Anderson and Marc Almond, sometimes talk singing, sometimes operatically weaving melodies around drone, synthesizer, and Mark Warman’s orchestration. It’s melodramatic and literary, often times plucking lines from a range of obtuse allusions. His persona is masked in mystery, he rarely gives interviews, his rate releasing records have been about once a decade piecing together a cult figure that isn’t afraid to confront his audiences with the bleak and the beautiful.
It’s been said that O’Malley and Anderson, a pair also prone to gothic theatrics, approached Walker to be a guest on Monoliths and Dimensions. At the time, Walker declined the offer, but years later approached Sunn 0))) saying that he had written material with them in mind, and thus Soused was born.
From the first notes of the album, it’s obvious that this record has been guided and crafted by Walker. The songwriting falls in nicely with his latest three records, tapping into his post-modernist operatic styling, his vocals wavering between amelodic chants and atonal lyrical passages. The first sound that you hear in the first track “Brando” is a synthesizer and Walker’s operatically trained voice invoking a canto which recurs as a type of chorus. It’s also colored with surprisingly clean guitar lines and a circus or vaudeville atmosphere. In between these cantos Sunn 0)))’s rumble is layered with droning drum synthesizers while Walker sings “A beating would do me a world of good.” It’s a good introduction on what’s to come on the record, mixing bleak self-deprecation with drastic dynamic shifts. As with the rest of the record, Sunn 0))) is employed primarily as a background and constructor of a spatial dimension for the rest of the instruments – especially Walker’s voice – to roam free. “Brando’s” themes and dynamic shifts get repeated in the last track “Lullaby” as a type of coda or reprise, finishing the album with a nice circular arc, complete with vaudeville and circus themes.
The spatial dimension of the music cannot be stressed enough on the second track “Herod 2014.” Stretching to 12 minutes, the guitars actually get to play a riff this time, but, again, with a level of understatement. Different sounds fill the voids opened by the guitar drone – drum loops, droning bells, brass sounds that resemble Cosey Tutti’s brass contribution to Throbbing Gristle, and other indiscernible sounds. The lyrics follow the biblical story of Herod, repeating the line “She’s hidden her baby away” but the story is hard to follow otherwise. At one point Walker’s lyrics and style bears some resemblance to Current 93’s David Tibet, lifting lines from “The Sound of Music” which comes across as artfully whimsical and charmingly laughable, but risks distracting too much from the music. In fact, that’s a criticism I’d have to say of the whole project, that so much stress is put on Walker’s vocals that it downplays the rest of the instrumentation.
The most frustrating and earnestly collaborative moment is in the track “Bull” which finally pushes Anderson and O’Malley into the foreground of the music. The guitars roar out working side by side with Walker’s intense and angriest sounding vocals on the record. The track devolves into a cappella then interspersing a ridiculous drum solo and orchestrated noise, before suspending in silence only to have the guitars roar back in. It’s a similar vocal structure that Attila Csihar employed on “Big Church” off Sunn 0)))’s 2009 Monoliths and Dimensions. Disappointingly, the latter half of “Bull” is almost entirely made up of guitar drone with barely any orchestrated interplay that made the first half of the song so strong. I understand that it was made to give space to Sunn 0)))’s amplifier worship, but this would have been a perfect opportunity for them to at least develop a riff.
The most successful track as a whole is “Fetish.” Walker invokes and narrates scene from an imaginary opera, coming in first as an a cappella instrument (spliced with various instruments and noises), next he’s joined by percussion and weird sounding upright bass before breaking out into what almost sounds like a rock groove. Almost halfway through the 9 minute track, guitars enter and a musical space is literally rebuilt from the ground up. Its awe-inspiring sound construction that drives this entire project and here is when it works the best. First, with the guitar, then with synthesizer, then with a repeat of the rock groove, made heavier by the inclusion of the guitar. As with all of these compositions, the moments of melding collaboration of sounds are fleeting, and Walker again takes the reins of the song and uses his voice as centerpiece and tool to curate the rest of the instruments.
Soused remains a cohesive unit, and that’s one of its strongest aspects. It’s focused, comfortable with its limitations, and not afraid to resist preconceived genre assignments. It also feels one sided, with Walker taking up most of the room, and the rest regulated to stand on the sidelines. When the writing aligns and the two sides meet on common ground you can feel that there’s sparks of creative ingenuity that can make this project something more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between, and it never fully rises as more than the sum of its parts. Walker’s songs are cut from the same inspired place as Drift and Bish Bosh, and the guitars as loud and droning as on any other Sunn 0))) recording, but for a band whose claim to fame is their ability to write crushing riffs, the songs composition directly and artificially clashes with one of the duo’s salient features, and the overall impression of the album as lukewarm.