Sunn O))) puts on a legendary live show

Andy Kilbride

Staff Writer

 On April 17, drone metal band Sunn O))) (pronounced “sun”) played at the Agora Theater in Cleveland to promote their latest record, “Life Metal.” Well into their second decade as a band, core members Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley — often accompanied by a revolving door of collaborators — have cemented themselves as a must-see live act with a loyal, passionate fanbase.

The band doesn’t write songs so much as they jam out with lengthy instrumental pieces notable for their sluggish, minimalist and downtuned riffs buried under layer upon layer of distortion. Chord progressions repeat ad infinitum, offering a hypnotic quality that demands patience on the listener’s part.

Their albums — which I highly recommend, they’re consistently very good — are cacophonies of blistering noise and feedback, but they don’t come close to capturing their intensity as a live act. When you walk into the venue and spy the stories upon stories of massive amplifiers, it becomes obvious that Sunn O))) are not like most live performers.

More keen on dramatic entrances than most bands, the band covers the entire room in thick, impenetrable fog that almost completely blurs the stage. Above them, the stage lighting changes color every few seconds, painting the misty haze of the venue. You can occasionally make out the band members playing in their distinctive black, hooded robes, something that makes Sunn O))) concerts feel like a genuine religious experience.

But, this is all secondary to Sunn O))) being a loud-as-shit live band. The wall of amps I mentioned before are hardly decorations; they’re put to excellent use in creating sounds so massive and deep that you can physically feel them vibrate against you. The chords rattle your body like a vibrating massage chair desperate to give you tinnitus. (You really shouldn’t skimp on earplugs if you see them, even  with protection their pummeling drones are demandingly intense.) The set consisted of two pieces — one that took up almost the entire hour-long set, and a much shorter encore — after which the band’s hooded figures bowed in the mist and disappeared into the man-made ether. The end of their show feels like a mix between a grueling workout and a therapy session: productive and worthwhile but absolutely exhausting.

Opening for Sunn O))) was Papa O, the instrumental solo project of ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo. His set consisted of two memorable post-rock pieces kept together by elaborate, layered guitar loops, and — as great as the show was — I was genuinely disappointed that his set wasn’t longer.

Sunn O))) concerts are the music nerd’s Mecca: their concerts are so legendary and unique that you have to see them at least once. They demand more out of the concert-goer than your usual band, but their talent lays in Anderson and O’Malley’s ability to reward the listener’s patience and tolerance for noise.