Music Reviews

Sunn O))) & Ulver Terrestrials

(Southern Lord) Rating - 7/10

Somewhere, in the center of some distant star far along the cosmos, Sunn O))) and Ulver are sharing a brief meditative drift into a black hole, sonically recording their exploits and channeling them, via subtle seismic twitches, onto delicate silicon discs — each one retaining a little more star-stuff than the last. One by one, these tiny objects are shot out towards the terrestrial dwellings of psychic reservists perusing the infinite expanse of the digital music market place, all the while discarding unneeded archival entries along the endless information superhighway… Or at least that’s how I’ve imagined the recording/distribution process behind the two metal monoliths’ debut collaborative effort, Terrestrials.

Seriously, without taking another side-trip into the endless realm of cosmic metaphor (of which this album provides plenty of fodder), Sunn O))) and Ulver have really taken us far from their usual dark chapels and black forest haunts on this record. Though both groups’ signature doom-laden drone remains intact, there’s not much here that distinctly resembles Sunn O)))’s regular canvas of tonal colors. Perhaps the writhing bass thuds and murmuring guitars of Western Horn are the most potent delineations of Sunn O))) to make it onto the album. However, the atonal drones occupying the background of the track seem less concerned with jarring the listener as they are in serving a similar, foreboding function as the choir in Ligeti’s Requiem — a disquieting tension that never quite comes to rest even after the movement has long faded out. 

At its best, album opener Let There Be Light can be seen as a vaguely similar off-shoot of the symphonic orgasm at the end of Alice on 2009’s Monoliths And Dimensions, but even that doesn’t quite account for the level of psychedelic weirdness and synthesized eccentricities found within the confines of its nearly 12-minute runtime. Gone are the band’s usual low-tuned, dredge-y guitars, instead replaced by a combined yield of dense synth soundscapes, fragmentary guitar jangles, and rich brass ornamentation. The end result is something that more appropriately parallels the music of Wendy Carlos, Philip Glass, and early Cage piano pieces, with a subtle whiff of Bitches Brew thrown in for good measure.

It’s hard to imagine the recording sessions for Terrestrials as anything less than an elongated series of musical happenings. Every sound present seems almost entirely reactionary to the placement of a previous sound, gradually shape-shifting as more instruments are added and others fade. Eternal Return is perhaps the most rehearsed of the three, with definable,  contrasting melodies that don’t morph as much as they deliberately change direction. By the time Kristoffer Ryg’s vocals set in (the only ones on the entire album, mind you), the track has clearly progressed into an entirely new movement — one wrought with continuo synth lines, resounding piano chords, and fluttering electronic tumult. Yet while the shift in part is certainly a welcomed one, those vocals still seem a touch out of place. It’s not necessarily that Ryg commits a single foul note to tape or that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the inclusion of vocals on what is otherwise an entirely instrumental album. Rather, they simply just don’t fit into the texturally immersive nature of the song itself and merely serve as the sole distraction from what was once an all-encompassing, entrancing experience.

Textural hiccups notwithstanding, Terrestrials is a musically surreal experience, if not an entirely accessible one. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment that, for the most part, works out quite well. Although, the album doesn’t seem to reveal much of anything about future Sunn O))) endeavors or the progression of the band’s sound to date, but as a collaborative effort, it really doesn’t need to. What Terrestrials does reveal about Sunn O))) is their amiability, their unique potential to bring the concept of Sunn O))), if not its distinct sound, to an album that really isn’t quite their own.