Review: Sunn O))) & Jesse Sykes

Joe Costello is temporarily deafened at Coventry’s HMV Empire.

It’s a tricky thing to write a review of a band whose work you are familiar with both in terms of recorded output and the live experience, but also when you also have difficulty telling the difference between one track and another.

Naming themselves after a particularly loud brand of amplification favoured by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend and with the mission statement “Maximum volume yields maximum results”, for the uninitiated, Sunn O))) are leading lights of drone metal.

Imagine the opening salvo of Iron Man. Now take out the drums. And the vocals. Now increase the volume. And slow it down. And repeat at leisure and you are part way there. I’m joking of course, on the surface there may not be much more to Sunn O))) than just noise but there’s subtlety and humour to be found in good measure too, offering further proof that it’s a fine line between clever and stupid.

Full disclosure, my first encounter with them at the Supersonic Festival many years ago was not a positive one. Persuaded by a more enthusiastic friend to abandon Mogwai mid-set, I disliked them to the point of anger and yet they somehow sufficiently aroused my curiosity to revisit with a more receptive mindset once my resentment had subsided a decade later.

The evening commences with a pleasant set of gothic country from Jesse Sykes, very much not in keeping with what we expect from the headliners, which eases us in gently before vacating the stage and the fearsome Sunn O))) backline can be seen unobstructed, a semi-circular Amphenge of Marshalls, Ampegs and Sunns with dials that may even go beyond 11 that are as much a part of the band as its core of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley.

VIP package tickets even offered a photo in front of the sound system among the trading up incentives as well as first dibs at the well-stocked merchandise stall that largely adheres to Henry Ford’s maxim on available colours for t-shirts, caps, tote bags, though sadly the PRAISE IOMMI design is last year’s model and not on sale tonight.

Mercifully for out of towners relying on public transport such as myself, there is an 8:30 start for a 10:00 curfew but that’s as far as mercy extends on once they take to the stage. Pared down to a duo for this tour with previous live incarnations employing additional guest members on vocals, keyboards, trombone, (yes, trombone) they arrive in their trademark hooded robes (I’ve yet to see a band sporting cowls that I didn’t like) and begin to play through a blanket of dry ice that ebbs and flows over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Occasionally through the fog a fist or Les Paul is raised aloft, the audience responding in similar fashion. It comes close to being a religious experience with the outfits and other trappings and the reverence and attention paid by the audience, not that conversation or other distractions were viable given the intensity of the show.

CandleGoat is probably the opener, according to SetlistFM this is the first song performed where it’s been recorded for other dates in the tour, of which tonight is the last of the UK leg. As I said earlier, it could be anything from their canon though I am reasonably confident I heard some fragments of Novæ along the way but beyond that, it was pretty much of a glorious muchness, only pausing in the proceedings once during the duration of the show.

A new light show is in evidence, a trio of circular light structures looming over the ten speaker stacks and alternating between glowing ominously like the Eye of Sauron, a stylised rising sun or searchlights. At times the overwhelming feeling can be something akin to being the subject of an alien abduction and examination. All in all, given the volume and monotony, it’s an enjoyable and cathartic experience. I’m glad I deployed the complementary ear plugs.