10 YEARS LATER: Sunn O)))’s Black One

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coverBy 2005, when I was 21 years old, I had more or less given up on metal. There was very, very little from that world that I still had any real interest in. One of those precious few bands was Earth. Something about their monolithic 1993 LP Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version held my attention even as I gradually drifted away from metal and found myself taking a more active interest in (shudder) indie rock. Fitting, then, that Earth would return in September of that year with Hex; or Printing in the Infernal Method, their first proper LP since 1996’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons. Their new home was Southern Lord records, a relative newcomer at that time (founded only 7 years prior in 1998) who has since gone on to become one of the most respected underground metal labels in North America. The label was brand new to my uneducated ears, so I sought to learn as much as I could about them and their stable of artists. Most of them didn’t do much to pique my interest, but one band grabbed me at first listen. On the advice of a friend, I obtained a copy of Flight of the Behemoth by Sunn O))), the band helmed by Southern Lord’s founder Greg Anderson along with Stephen O’Malley. It took hearing that record once and only once for me to become hooked. I dove headfirst into their discography, listening to anything that I could get my hands on.
As I was working my way through their output, it just so happened that Black One was released. I had just recently heard White 1 and White 2 for the first time, so the title immediately caught my eye. Assuming I’d be in for a similar experience, I sat down and gave it a listen. Now, I’d like to think that I am not prone to exaggeration when it comes to detailing my reactions to things–particularly music–so when I say that my first time hearing Black One changed my life, I mean it. My familiarity with black metal was relatively poor, so hearing this sort of demonic howling coming through my speakers was an altogether new and confusing experience for me, and holy shit those god damned guitars. Even at a snail’s pace, with a single chord or note dragging on for minutes at a time on occasion, Black One is crushingly heavy. Calling these things “riffs” is almost an injustice. It undersells exactly how devastatingly heavy the sounds that they conjure from their instruments actually are.
The thing that strikes me the most about Black One, however, is that those guitar drones are only a part of what makes this record so captivating. I have, in the past, described the album as a “nightmare soundtrack.” A decade later, I’d still stand by that. There are moments on here that I find genuinely unsettling. On more than one occasion while listening to it on headphones, I had to shut it off and switch to something else because I was too uncomfortable. The contributions from Oren Ambarchi and John Wiese add dense layers to the thick, suffocating fog of noise contained within each track. Everything from tubular bells, gongs, horn sections, primitive percussion, and something referred to in the liner notes as “casket electronics” (apparently performed by Wiese) make up Black One‘s claustrophobic walls of sound. Couple that with harrowing vocal performances by Malefic (Xasthur), Wrest (Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice, Twilight, etc.) and Attila Csihar (Mayhem, Tormentor) and you get a record that can be legitimately terrifying to listen to. Oh, and they do a really mean cover of “Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons” by Immortal that stretches the four minute original out to just over ten minutes.
This coming October, Black One will turn ten years old. Does it still hold up as well for me today as it did when I first heard it a decade ago? Of course it does. No extreme metal record released since has so abruptly grabbed my attention as this one did, never mind the fact that I still listen to it fairly often, which can’t be said for many other albums that I heard for the first time back then. Sunn O))) has continued to impress me with 2006’s Altar (a collaborative effort with Boris), Monoliths & Dimensions in 2009, and last year’s unexpectedly brilliant work with Scott Walker, Soused, but none of these records have had the same lasting impact on me that Black One did. Not only was I completely captivated with it, but I can also trace a good chunk of my current musical interests back to this release. In a way, it can be credited with reinvigorating my interest in extreme metal. Hearing Malefic’s tortured screams spurred me to check out Xasthur, which led to a whole world of underground black metal unfolding in front of me. Of course, that’s had its ups and downs (mostly downs, really), but if it hadn’t been for Black One, I wouldn’t have bands like Von or Darkthrone in my collection now, and I certainly wouldn’t be writing this while wearing a Sarcófago shirt.