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SunnO))) Bring Norwegian Churches and Metal Together

SunnO))) – Dømkirke (Southern Lord Records)

Who says Norwegian churches and metal can’t get along? Dømkirke was recorded live in the 800-year-old Bergen Cathedral in Bergen, Norway, as part of the Borealis Festival in 2007. SunnO))) (pronounced “sun”) are known for creating slow, heavy, heavy metal by drawing out notes and chords using guitars and electronics. The group originally drew inspiration from early Earth records which they have surpassed at this point and now create a sound that is all their own. SunnO))) do a stellar job on Dømkirke of wrangling their ultra-heavy sound into cathedral proportions. The band is lead by Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson who utilize a rotating cast of musicians for recording and playing live. On Dømkirke, O’Malley and Anderson who tackle guitar and bass duties are joined by Steve Moore of Earth on pipe organ, Attila Csihar of legendary Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem of vocals and Lasse Marhaug on electronics. This vinyl-only release is a double album consisting of four songs — one song per side.

According to the album liner notes written by the Borealis festival curator Nicholas Mollerhaug, the “idea behind this concert was to commission a piece of music from SunnO))) referring to the gothic Gregorian hymns of the Late Middle Ages. Hymns that flourished Bergen Cathedral in its earliest years: The age of the Great Famine and The Black Plague. The Gregorian hymns of this time reflected the despair, the terrors and darkness of the world. Musically the hymns consisted of long slow lines of unison melodies. The unisonity, the dark mood and the slow melodic development are all elements that also can be traced back to SunnO)))’s musical universe. These parallels between SunnO))) and the medieval times gave birth to this commission.”

The first song “Why Dost Thou Hyde Thyself in the Clouds?” is a 15-minute meditation piece. The pipe organ and guitars begin quietly and remain fairly sedate for the entire song while Csihar’s vocals are the focal point. His vocals fall in between Gregorian chant, guttural bellowing and Tuvan throat singing. While the guitars and organ maintain a certain level, the vocals build. Csihar exhibits a surprising vocals range compared to his normal throat-shredding delivery with Mayhem. The cut ends with the decay of the final organ notes.

“Cannon”, on side two, is more representative of Sunn0)))’s signature sound. “Cannon” is significantly louder than “Why Dost Thou Hide…”. It begins with massive sub-bass rumblings and huge elongated guitar riffs mixed with spooky electronics. Moore punctuates certain moments with trumpet bleats. About five minutes in the organ slowly revs up and Csihar whispers his vocals. While the guitars churn out their monolithic chords, Csihar and the pipe organ come to the forefront again.

The third jam “Cymatics” starts with ‘70s horror movie paranoid electronics and heavily processed vocals prior to the guitars joining in. This song more sense of progression than the previous two songs. The crew creates layers of sound over the next 15 minutes that becomes quite aurally omnipresent by the end of the song.

Teeth rattling bass and electronic organ kick off the last cut “Masks the Ætmospheres”. The guitars join in with a tone that sounds like a huge band saw cutting through thick wood. This turns into pulsing oscillations. The oscillations are slowly reined in as Csihar delivers the most Gregorian-like vocals of the recording. The pipe organ comes to the fore and the song winds down just to vocals and organ once again.

SunnO))) did an excellent job of realizing the intent behind the festival commission on many levels. The pace, texture and volume of the music as well as utilizing the space and acoustics of the cathedral compliments the setting. The use of Norwegian musicians Attila Csihar and Lasse Marhaug adds to the significance of the performance. I can’t help but think that the presence of Csihar had a certain symbolism. His group Mayhem was one of the originators of the Norwegian Black Metal scene. Certain bands and members of that scene torched a number of churches in Norway in the early ‘90s. Members of Mayhem openly condemned the church burnings especially because some of the churches had pre-Christian pagan roots. Ultimately, this may be Sunn0)))’s most realized recording to date. SunnO))) successfully straddles the metal, noise, rock and avant-garde genres with Dømkirke.

As stated above, this is a vinyl-only release. No compact disc or mp3. As with other Southern Lord vinyl releases, a lot of care went into the packaging. The records are 180-gram vinyl. The gatefold jacket is made from sturdy cardboard stock and the artwork is pretty superb.

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