Despite the heavy-metal solemnity that the names and the pasts of Sunn O))) and Ulver might suggest, their three-track collaboration Terrestrials actually started as a celebration. In 2008, Sunn O))) played its 200th set in a park in Oslo, Norway, to a few thousand ear-burned listeners at the Øya festival. For the auspicious occasion, the band expanded into a transcontinental quintet, with the core of bassist Greg Anderson, guitarist Stephen O’Malley, ritualistic showman Attila Csihar, and an accompanying militia of amplifiers abutted by two guests, Norwegian electronics aggressor Lasse Marhaug and British multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’ Sullivan. “This is Sunn O)))’s 200th concert!” exclaimed their stage plot for the big night in one of metal’s motherlands. “We are very, very happy to be playing it in Norway! Thank you! Hail to Norway!”
To consecrate the event, two days later Ulver invited Anderson and O’Malley to Crystal Canyon, their longtime Oslo studio, to stay up late and improvise until the sun rose—two supposed pillars of darkness, creating a collective morning love song. The pairing made sense: Sunn O))) and Ulver have emerged sporadically but surely as “searching musicians,” the phrase that Robert Levin coined to describe John Coltrane’s essential artistic unrest in 1957. (O’Sullivan, Rygg, and O’Malley also play in the highly collaborative art-metal ensemble Aethenor.) Sure, Sunn O))) earned their initial cachet by dressing in robes and playing long, loud riffs through a macabre veil of fog. But their records are deeply experimental odysseys where choirs, orchestras, and harsh-noise masters enrich their typical amplifier worship. And during the last two decades, Ulver have moved from a black metal powerhouse into an outfit that have used electronica and theatrics to forge their own cutting edge. To wit, O’Sullivan, who joined these sessions after supporting Sunn O))) at Øya, has since become Ulver’s fourth member. His other projects include Grumbling Fur and Guapo, associations that reinforce Ulver’s beyond-metal charge.
Despite those résumés, the relatively bright sounds, open-ended structures and medium volume of the pleasant Terrestrials might still come as a surprise. After that initial session, O’Malley and Ulver frontman Kristoffer Rygg finessed the recordings, editing and assembling the jams into three sympathetic pieces, aided by strings and trumpet. The results step far afield of Sunn O)))’s generally infinite desolation and pull Ulver’s own stylistic wandering toward a center of static gravity.
The opener takes the name “Let There Be Light”, a de facto mantra for the tune and overall effort. These first 11 minutes, for instance, cycle through a dense bed of guitar sustains, trumpet curlicues, and violin trills until a drum roll introduces a marching-band-sized fanfare. With its plunging bass and vaulting melodies, the moment suggests the sun pictured on the album’s cover, at last climbing from the blanketing dark. On “Western Horn”, the shortest and most essential piece here, the ensemble builds patiently, with sinister guitars and torpid tones accreting during the first several minutes. But there’s a luminous undercurrent to this unlikely rendezvous of Miles Davis’ electric jazz surrealism and Sunn O)))’s fathom-deep drones. O’Sullivan’s coruscant keyboards and a trumpet extend vivid lines from beneath the din. It’s like staring into darkness so long that you imagine new flickers of light, a mirage of impending triumph. The 14-minute closer “Eternal Return” fully indulges this radiance, with soporific vibraphone loosely marking the meters through distended lines of guitar and violin. Think Earth 2.0, allowing Dylan Carlson’s guitar leads to bleed outside the pocket. At the midpoint, an organ introduces a repetitive piano-and-synthesizer figure. It’s practically danceable. Kristoffer Rygg falls into this rhythm, delivering a poem of mixed mythologies (Hades collides with the Wilderness of Sin, and so on) in his melodramatic croon. It’s offered as a culmination.
Sunn O))) and Ulver have collaborated before for “CUTWOODeD”, an obscure, abstruse track appended to a version of White1 issued through a very limited box set several years after the original’s release. That sidelong span was darker and more menacing than anything on Terrestrials, with death-of-machines wheezes and layered, low-lying drones tracing a bleak landscape. But in retrospect, that decade-old collaboration shares the same aversion to momentum—rising, falling, climaxing, moving toward much of anything—that handicaps Terrestrials. On “CUTWOODed”, only a distant electronic thud urged the listener onward, a beacon providing a semblance of forward motion.
These three tracks are much more sculpted and finessed than that very deep cut, but the same feeling of lingering and waiting presides. These are introductions to something that never really arrives. When Rygg’s stentorian voices vanishes during “Eternal Return”, the music limps into the void for another four minutes, an anti-climax that gives even the biggest moment here the elliptical feeling of a preamble. Despite some rather majestic sheets of sound and many moments of instrumental interplay that suggest giants from Ennio Morricone to Philip Glass and from Jon Hassell to the Necks, Terrestrials is a slight musical drift, a soundtrack unattached to a significant story.
Ultimately, Terrestrials works as a likable listen, a liminal play concerning the push and pull between dusk and dawn. But it serves as a mere footnote or, at beast, an appealing redundancy for Sunn O))) and Ulver, two acts whose power has long stemmed from their willingness and ability to push past the parameters of genre. Together, they redouble one another’s outsider inclinations, but they push until they become all but unmoored to the thrall endemic to their best work. After the sun rises on these meditations, then, you can simply go about your daily routine, somewhat elevated but mostly unaltered.
Thick stock cardboard Stoughton style tip on jacket.
180 gram vinyl.
Vinyl Color: Orange (Exclusive European Print of 1000)