Music Reviews
Ensemble Pearl

Ensemble Pearl Ensemble Pearl

(Drag City) Rating - 7/10

Stephen O’Malley is a drone maestro if such a thing exists.  If it doesn’t, it should.

As half the nucleus that comprises the amplified ceremony of Sunn O))), O’Malley, behind his hood and drooping monkish garb, pushes endless decibels from his guitar, realizing the band’s credo of maximum volume yielding the same level of results.  And while his (along with co-conspirator Greg Anderson) goal seems to involve the willful destruction of objects and eardrums with pure sound, lengthy and severe stretches of aural, wallowing punishment that could make smoke quiver like vibrating Jell-O, Sunn O)))’s crawling distortion has generated a canvas fit enough to incorporate dramatic orchestration (as with 2009’s excellent Monoliths & Dimensions) or enjoyed enough malleability to expand collaboratively (as with Boris for their 2006 joint effort, Altar).  With no melody required, or tempo to consider, Sunn O))) has stuck close to its core while attempting to diversify its vision.

Earth, the pioneering unit that’s often accredited with having first cultivated drone metal, influenced and helped inform the sound of Sunn O))).  Earth began in 1989 with a down-tuned and heavily saturated style of performance, sopping with reverb and charred audible crust.  It was slow, repetitive and viscous and has since the band’s 2005 release, Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method, grown into an acoustically folk or country-based version of itself, more of a Death Valley sandbox than the fertile swamp Earth had initially explored.  As if led by the reconfiguration Earth’s mainstay Dylan Carlson saw fit to employ, O’Malley’s new collaborative project, Ensemble Pearl, follows with sounds similarly meditative and expansive, the addition of ambient embellishments and trance-like devices an attempt to modernize Carlson’s vintage tonality. 

Ensemble Pearl’s self-titled debut, the combined effort of O’Malley, Atsuo (Boris), William Herzog (The Sweet Hereafter) and Michio Kurihara (Ghost), is an album of perpetual drift, expanding upon the defining characteristics of droning or ambient music.  Though it’s likely a well-intended homage, the album does reproduce the pace and tone of Earth’s more recent work: the tracks Ghost Parade, with sporadic guitar strokes that dwell within the track’s cavernous environs, and Island Epiphany, its dub-echo percussion and whale song of a guitar solo, both feel and sound like slightly reconsidered extractions, lifted directly from Hex or 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull and adjusted for the sake of creative ownership. 

Unlike Earth, though, Ensemble Pearl floats through the form, fusing the genre’s lasting ponderousness and infinite space with something more elaborate and less confined by gravity.  Painting on a Corpse is a percussion cycle with an arbitrary collage of shimmering sounds brandished like new cutlery, an emission of sonic chirps tiptoeing in succession.  The piece has immensity to it and its propulsion is striking in its lack of warmth. 

We do find some beauty, though, with Wray, violinists Eyvind Kang (who also had a hand in crafting Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions) and Timba Harris bowing or plucking, rubbing or dragging their strings as ethereal sounds move beneath.  As with Painting on a Corpse, Wray possesses a slow persistence mixed with some disarray, though it’s light and loose.  With Giant, a singular undulating tonal wave is sustained while organ keys flutter, an entrancing hummmmmmmmmmmmm varying in intensity over the course of its 10+ minute length.

The album closes with Sexy Angle, a near twenty-minute rugged and steady guitar piece whose reverberating surf strings quiver like early 60’s rock n’ roll.  The whole track feels like frost-covered steel, its acoustics elongated as if recorded in a tunnel and the drum sticks sound as if they’re bouncing on an empty kettle.  Although the album’s finale is also evocative of Earth’s tundra-encrusted folk, Sexy Angle is really the only track that feels confined, a noticeable lack of freedom, or an overwhelming sense thereof.  Ensemble Pearl goes out dark, a super-slow revisit to Route 66 as viewed through a prison of its revised design.