“Maximum volume yields maximum results.” This is printed on every rider and stage plot Sunn O))) sends out to venues in advance of their shows. Not many bands can claim to have a motto, but it’s the most fitting summation of this act you’d ever need.
Opening the show is Montreal’s own Big|Brave with a polished and appropriately doomy set. Thunderous drums and heavy, ponderous riffs carry the plaintive vocals, expertly setting the mood and giving the headbangers a chance to get it out of their systems while they can. This will be the one and only time such familiar musical hallmarks as rhythm, melody, and discernible lyrics make an appearance tonight – we’re heading somewhere much weirder.
There is a long stretch between the acts as the smoke machines are pushed to their limits, and a thick haze settles over the crowd. Dim red lights pulse and a guy near me takes the opportunity to sneak a cigarette. This innocuous subversion feels significant: we’re entering new territory and losing some rules and markers along the way. Those of us in the first half-dozen rows can barely see the bodies around us, let alone the stage. We’re retreating into ourselves and losing sight of everything else.
Before anyone even realizes the group has taken the stage, sound begins to fill the room. It is the voice of Atilla Csihar, guttural and droning. His range is magnificent, dipping down into a rich throat hum steeped in overtones, leaping up into chanted invocations which might be Hungarian or might be a dead language from a forgotten dimension. As the smoke clears we see there are others behind him, manning guitars and synths; they are all hooded and cloaked, moving slowly and with purpose. The sound swells and drowns the voice in a billowing roar and our earplugs are in, the unprepared quickly realizing their unfortunate mistake and clasping their hands to the sides of their heads.
Overused as the cliché may be, this is more than music. This is an experience of sound at its most primal level, a crash course in the physics of vibration. It is felt in the body as much, or perhaps even more, than it is heard in the ears. It rattles your bones, warps your gut. The skull buzzes, ears pop. The sheer volume elevates sound into physical reality, unfurling from the wall of stacked amps like a standing wave.
Beyond the novelty of noise, the stage presence is worth mentioning. It feels less like a performance for our benefit and more like a glimpse into their own intimate ritual – and not just because they’re all dressed like druids. These men are participating in something special and deeply personal. They pass around a bottle of water like a sacrament, all motions careful and deliberate. One or two or three members at a time come and go from the stage; at one point both the guitarists are gone and we are treated to a much lighter passage of synth and horn, which only deepens the impact when the guitars drop back in.
The sound ends suddenly. The silence comes as a shock, a jolt. The body grows so accustomed to the volume, the ubiquitous vibration, that its sudden absence leaves a void. There is a collective release throughout the crowd as hundreds of bodies immediately relax, slacking into the vacuum. The smoke clears, the thunderous applause fades away, raised horns are lowered, faces are left glowing and awed. There is a general consensus of speechlessness, an inability to express what we all just went through. A friend manages: “That was church.”