In the history of Western classical and pop music, melody has tended to be the compositional element that composers have paid the most attention to. Heavy metal, by contrast, distinguished itself by largely (though not entirely) eschewing melody in favour of repeated riffs, and perhaps more importantly, focusing on texture as a key feature. In spite of the large and obvious variance in subgenres of metal, the presence of loud, distorted guitars is ubiquitous to the point that it’s essentially the music’s defining characteristic. Obviously certain chord progressions, scales and harmonies sound more “metal” than others- the diabolus in musica tritone at the centre of Black Sabbath’s eponymous song is perhaps the most obvious example. But you could almost argue that how your guitar sounds is more important to being metal than what you’re playing.
Even the most experimental of metal groups have largely stayed within the genre’s textural boundaries, rarely if ever abandoning the use of guitar distortion entirely. US drone masters Sunn O))), for example, distinguished themselves by building on the drone metal template established by Earth’s Dylan Carlson, adding more and more non-standard instrumentation and elements from outside the heavy music wheelhouse, but still retaining a foundation of extended, drumless guitar drones. Even on releases like 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions or their 2006 collaboration with Boris, Altar, which featured “softer” textures on certain tracks, the sonic template of metal was largely retained. However, Terrestrials, the group’s collaboration with experimental Norwegian band Ulver, is their first release (as far as I am aware) to entirely abandon the customary miasma of distortion*. In its place is an almost orchestral take on the drone metal form; sharing the same structure, but arriving at a different musical landscape altogether.
Opener “Let There Be Light” slowly builds up from quiet, crystalline ambience into a subdued yet swelling ebb and flow of guitar. It somewhat echoes “Alice”, the closing track of the aforementioned Monoliths, in its jazz-influenced supplementing instrumentation- in particular, the washes of trumpet in the background closely recall mid-period Miles Davis. Nearly eight and a half minutes pass before tribal drums kick in, but they occupy background space in the mix and never overpower the other elements. The expected approach might be to have the drums kick in to signal an increase in volume or energy, but nothing so pedestrian happens here. Certainly, their arrival coincides with the intensity of the performances rising, but not in a way that reflects the power we tend to expect from metal. Even at over 10 minutes total, the track feels as though it ends abruptly, just as it was emerging from its long buildup into something more majestic.
“Western Horn” opens with an extended didgeridoo note, again hinting at the form of drone metal without recreating it texturally. Guitar, piano, and paranoid-sounding strings are gradually layered upon each other, each element adding background texture to the drone in centre stage. The result is a sinister mood, reminiscent of earlier Sunn O))) work in terms of what is being played- the chord progression could easily have appeared on ØØ Void– but approached from a very different angle. Rather than the band’s previous minimalist focus on feedback-drenched guitars, a thick blanket of sound is constructed here from the intermingling timbres of myriad instruments, rather than sheer volume. By contrast, the third and final track, “Eternal Return”, is more elegy than dirge, summoning a more contemplative mood compared to its ominous predecessors. Huge, echoing guitars mix with meditative minor-key patterns on piano; 70s-style synths creep in at about seven mins, their warmth and analogue quality sounding otherworldly rather than cheesy. Following close behind come the only vocals on the album, a subdued oration of poetry abundant with imagery relating to ancient Egypt. The lyrics’ intended meaning is unclear, but they undoubtedly contribute to the overall elegaic mood.
As Sunn O))) releases go, Terrestrials is quite short, with three tracks measuring at just over half an hour. It might have been nice to hear the collective performers stretch out on another ten or fifteen minutes of material; but on the other hand, it’s refreshing when listening to this kind of slow, meditative music to be left wanting more, rather than beginning to lose patience by the end of its running time (I’ve sometimes felt exhausted attempting to listen to the Altar collaboration with Boris in its entirety, for example.) Fans of experimental, ambient or soundtrack projects will likely find something to enjoy in this release, as might adventurous metalheads accustomed to the far-out tendencies of the bands responsible. Given that the textural qualities of guitar distortion have become so closely associated with heavy music, there’s a debate to be had about whether, by essentially abandoning it, this music even counts as metal, even if it retains the same structure of the drone subgenre. Nonetheless, no matter how you choose to categorise it, Terrestrials is still a carefully constructed musical endeavour that remains deeply affecting.
Terrestrials is released on Tuesday (February 4th) on Southern Lord.