Sunn O))) with Caspar Brötzmann, 09/10/2019 Kaserne, Basel CH
On this cold, somewhat rainy evening in Basel, the expectations for what will come are high. Sunn O))) are riding the waves of Life Metal, released earlier this year to great acclaim and a partner to the still to come Pyroclasts, and this evening feels like a celebration of life, of being in the moment and losing yourself to sound and the wonders that can lie beyond the horizon. The biggest worry on many minds is "Just how loud will this be?" and considering the decibel limit in Switzerland is a fairly low 100dB, those fears lean more towards "will it actually be loud enough?" Before we can find out, Caspar Brötzmann takes us on a bass-led journey of sound. The solo artist conjures curious rhythms and off-kilter tones during his time on the stage and the weird twists and turns he takes the audience on confusing and slightly bizarre. Grooves are laid out and stop suddenly so the ability to grasp on to any one part of the music becomes harder and harder as the set moves on towards its end. That's not to say that Caspar Brötzmann is in any way "bad," rather that his style is so unique that it takes a moment of grounding yourself, of doing some work to seek out the key moments and then attaching yourself to the notes and it's within this that beauty is found.
Soon after Caspar Brötzmann leaves the stage then the setting up of the Sunn O))) stage begins. While many of the amps are already in place, pedal boards and guitars need to be checked and cables fixed before the next performance can start. Once the band are happy then the the slow and deliberate build-up can begin. As the room fills with fog and your sight is obscured, flashes of light from the ceiling lamps pulse in time with a beat that is as fleeting as it is booming. The lights dim every so often and the anticipation that soon we will hear that first distorted note is felt throughout the hazy room, but not before the claustrophobic atmosphere has truly enclosed the audience and it seems as though relief will never come. The payoff is a long-time coming but that only adds to the fact that this performance already feels like an experience that will be talked about long after the final sustained guitar riffs fade out. Any concerns as to the decibel limit are allayed soon after the smoke begins to clear and the cloaked forms of Sunn O))) begin to make their presence known on stage. The previous ten minutes of waiting is soon forgotten and the following hour and forty-five minutes feels like a fever dream.
Lights are bright and rich with blues and magentas mixing in the middle of the stage while the hooded figures of core members Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley and their guitars appear through the curling fog, alongside long-term collaborators Tos Nieuwenhuizen (electronics) and Steve Moore (electronics and trombone), and later Tim Midyett on bass (he may have been on stage the entire time but smoke and amps muddied the view). Drones are structured and allowed to breathe in the space while the fog machines pump out smoke that loops its tendrils around the front row of the audience. Waves of guitar notes push ever harder against the air and move towards the back of the room and for many here the need to allow these notes to wash over them with eyes closed and arms raised is a sight to behold.
The absolute dedication to sound is apparent throughout their performance and as the drones rumble on and bodies vibrate, a ladder, that is for some reason leaning against the wall at the side of the stage, makes a metallic racket in time with the discordant strikes on guitar strings. Soon its noise is incorporated into the magic that is happening on the stage itself. It is no longer a separate entity but a part of the instrumentation and while the floor seems to quake and structural integrity is rendered naught but dust, Sunn O))) bring the evening to a stunned standstill. Steve Moore’s incredible trombone solo is lit by eerie yellow/green light which feeds into the supernatural aspect of the evening quite sublimely.
The transcendental aspect of Sunn O))) is brought to the fore towards the end of their performance when, after getting completely lost in the resonance of what is happening on stage, there comes a moment when Greg Anderson’s guitar seems to be floating in mid-air. He is no longer holding on to it and instead is worshipping his instrument from below. The guitar is hooked over the metal grid that forms the lighting rig by a machine head (or at least that’s how it seems from this viewpoint) and it’s honestly a second of wondering what in the world is going on but coming to the quick realisation that this is Sunn O))) at their most pure, most respectful of the equipment that got them to this place, on this day, and it is glorious to witness. When the final notes finally descend from the heavens and the band removes their hoods, the elation, relief and exhaustion on their faces is clear, but so is their reverence for the audience who profess their love with palms raised, supplicating themselves to the god of pure sound - the amplifier.
This last ninety minutes is not enough for the Basel crowd and so Sunn O))) come back for a fifteen minute encore that is wondrous in its radiance. Lights are rich and warm and envelope the stage and the band in tones of majestic blue and yellow. This is Life Metal in all its glory; a celebration of music and of giving yourself over to a higher power to guide your journey to the otherworld.
You can listen to this particular performance here.