IN MY EARS #24: Metal, Man, Machine
by Josh Feola
Selected track: Sunn O))) - "BP//Simple"
入耳 In My Ears is a weekly music column by Josh Feola 赵识, Beijing-based writer and musician and founder of pangbianr.com
Though it’s never been my favorite genre, I’ve always loved the word “metal” as the name of a type of music. If “rock’n’roll” refers to movement, and “punk” connotes the style and attitude of a person in relation to the music, “metal” means something extreme, hard, intensely anti-human.
At this point, there are of course other genres that sound more “metal” than Metal. Industrial music and harsh noise are obvious examples, and Lou Reed had already guessed at the furthest edges of what the Metal genre might become in his 1975 double album Metal Machine Music. Still, I can’t think of a better word to describe music that can barely be called music than “Metal”. Noise doesn't have the same imagistic power, and Industrial is a bit too obvious.
The Metal that I find most interesting today is the work being done at the genre’s fringes. One of my favorites is Sunn O))), a drone metal band from Seattle whose founder Stephen O’Malley will be playing Douban Music’s Wetware Festival next month. The band took their name from the logo of their preferred brand of guitar amplifier, and crafted their sound by plugging their guitars into an absurd number of these amplifiers. While other bands in the region had experimented with guitar-based drone music before Sunn O))) — Olympia, WA band Earth being a clear forerunner — no one had done so quite so LOUDLY, nor with as obvious a focus on the ritual aspect of Metal.
Sunn O))) is well known for dressing in druid cowls for their live performances, drenching the stage in smoke and obliterating the air with sound waves meant for the whole body, not the ears. I’ve never seen Sunn O))) live, but people who have typically describe to the experience as transcendental. “Life-changing”, several people on Twitter have said after seeing a recent string of Sunn O))) shows in Europe. They weren’t the first band to leverage the power of extreme amplification in the service of the Metal gods (Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is famous for this), but they were maybe the first to pursue pure sound volume (in terms of both decibel level and space) as an end in itself, and are considered pioneers and leaders of the drone metal sub-genre today.
Stephen O’Malley has a diverse career outside of his most famous band. He’s played in a few other doom and drone metal groups — Burning Witch and Khanate, among others — and has helped midwife other experimental metal into existence through his Southern Lord and Ideologic Organ labels. As a solo musician he’s collaborated with some of the world’s best-known experimentalists, including (and this is a very short list) Japanese noisers Merzbow and Keiji Haino, British industrial band Nurse With Wound, and Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. Closer to our zone, O’Malley also previously worked with Beijing duo FM3, via Sunn O)))’s contribution to a 2006 album of Buddha Machine remixes (streaming above).
O’Malley has also significantly altered the DNA of contemporary extreme music through his visual art, creating album covers for Norwegian Black Metal legends Burzum and Emperor, as well as fellow Pacific Northwest heavy-hitters Earth and The Melvins. From his current home base in Paris, he’s also worked with a diverse cast of filmmakers, theater directors and sculptors in a practice that has taken the philosophy and ritual attitude of Metal far beyond what the genre embodied at its origin, and even beyond the standalone spectacle of a smoke-drenched live performance.
While we probably won’t get as many amplifiers as we might at a Sunn O))) show, we do get the chance, in seeing O’Malley’s solo set, to hear (more likely: feel in our guts) what’s cooking inside the mind of one of contemporary Metal’s furthest thinkers and hardest workers. Bring earplugs.
Stephen O'Malley performs at Douban Music’s Wetware Festival on Friday, May 19 at Tango
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.
Wetware Douban Music Festival Official Site
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