Sunn O))) are more than a band; they are a belief system which you either “get” or deride. Sound, for them and their purist audience, is a sacrosanct energy which they merely channel rather than create. The point of Sunn O))) is not what they play, but what happens to the sound in between strokes of their guitars. The power that the wandering, unabated and almost agentic noise possesses is more significant than that which is conjured by the instrumentation. When totally immersed in the music that Sunn O))) create, you find yourself hearing things that are not there, that you have not heard on previous listens, and which you may not be able to discern again. Succumbing to the sound torrent that is Sunn O))) is not easy, and the listener has to almost de-train their expectations to fully allow a submersion into the visceral and primal elements of being that this band evoke. Throughout their 20+ year career, they have not strayed from the mantra that maximum volume yields maximum results and Life Metal, for the many, will sound like just another rehashing of their standard formula. Yet, for the few who understand, the four songs that make up this body of work sees a seemingly rejuvenated band exploring new sonic territory as they reveal aspects of themselves which were previously more hidden.

Life Metal, at its core, is a feminine and life affirming album. This is a statement at odds with much of the output of a band whose funereally slow-paced mystic drone/doom metal has seen collaborations with Malefic (of Xasthur), Wrest (of Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice) and Attila Csihar (of Mayhem), whose acerbic and abrasive vocal performances have imprinted an evocation of entrapment and despair and an often antithetical approach to living. The confinement of space (both physical and psychological) has been a significant element of this idea. For example, on the EP Oracle, Csihar’s voice was recorded chanting old Hungarian incantations for the dead from the confines of a locked coffin. Nice.

There is an undeniably phallocentric element to many forms of extreme metal culture, yet Life Metal serves to reveal the female, perhaps even maternal, elements which have always existed in Sunn O))) – the vulvic symbolism of hooded robes, the all-encompassing visual amniotic fluid of their heavy use of smoke machines at gigs, the life-giving and nourishing star at the epicentre of their moniker and the labial signifiers of the parentheses that surround the unspoken aspect of their name all serve as illustrations of their positive emasculation. The sound on Life Metal is enrapturing, meditative and all-encompassing, but in a nourishing and enveloping way - an aural womb.

The bright artwork on the album cover by Samantha Keely Smith, with its swirling orange, blue and red smoke, offers the notion that this work is different in tone to dark masterpieces such as Black One, Monoliths & Dimensions and Flight of the Behemoth. Steve Albini’s analogue recording process for this album has captured a more raw, earthier tone and an aesthetically enriched dynamic to the Sunn O))) sound which uncovers layers of meaning, which moves away from ideas of confinement to liberatory ones of expanse and emancipation.

Album opener ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ begins with a whinnying horse, an almost absurdly comic way to begin an album for a supposedly achingly serious band. There has always been a sense of the absurd in the performance aspect of Sunn O)))’s history - from their grimm robes, the passing of communal wine between band members, to Csihar’s tendency to dress as a tree or a disco ball themed Statue of Liberty with fingertip lasers - and this self-reverential humour is present from the beginning of this work. Fans of Norse mythology (and hacks who can use internet search engines) will no doubt be aware that Sleipnir was Odin’s eight-legged horse, and here Sunn O))) return to ideas of Norwegian mysticism, ground previously covered on White1’s ‘The Gates of Ballard’. The first track of Life Metal feels familiar, yet somehow also removed from aspects of their vast output to date. There is space here, yet also more chords per minute than is usual for a Sunn O))) track (1.68 chords per minute being the average, on the whole, from the scientific research of their entire back catalogue that I have just made up). The space creates a sense of energy, a lifeforce for the music in the absence of human action and movement. The players are secondary to the aural spirits which command them.

Much of Sunn O)))’s work evokes ideas of suffocation; entrapment which can only be relieved through iniquitous surrendering to the sonic onslaught. Yet, on Life Metal, there is positivity and a sense of tenderness which should be, but is not, deemed a juxtaposition. Hildur Guðnadóttir performs the vocal on ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’, and her lilting and soothing tone contrasts significantly with the deep growl of long-term vocal collaborator Csihar. There is an immediate sense of uplift when the vocal begins, and a sense of alarm as it seems both too high in the mix and disengaged from the music which underlies it. Here, though, is the perfect example of why Sunn O))) transcend many people’s ideas of music as a carrier of artistic expression, as there seem to be so many ideas occurring simultaneously on ‘Between Sleipnir’s Breaths’ that it is easy to conceive of the musicians’ trance-like psychosis producing the work rather than a pre-ordained and calculated committee meeting of songwriters mulling over their work in an unemotional, audience-centred manner.

Between the notes, in the spaces where sound is allowed to truly be, lies the elemental warmth of Life Metal. ‘Troubled Air’, the album’s second track, continues this theme of allowing the guitar chords to die away to reveal an aspect of their nature which is both beauteous and knowingly transient. The notion of capturing sound is quite obviously the raison d’etre of the recording process, but here there is a focus on the waning and the loss of sounds which are unique in their form and will likely never be reproduced. This, then, is a document of an overlaid singularity of vibrant energy being recycled – conception, birth, decay, reconstitution. Sound as spirit, soul and essence rather than contrivance.

These themes are perfectly rendered on ‘Novae’, which closes the album. A classic Sunn O))) riff makes way, after 13 minutes, for the drone of Guðnadóttir’s mysterious haldrophone which is akin to the combined noise of a didgeridoo and a Tibetan singing bowl. The listener’s focus is encouraged drift in and around the different tones present, exploring new meanings and interpretations as they see fit. It is in this ability for Sunn O))) to produce multifaceted layers of noise, each with its own degree of relevance and purpose, that suggest that the active listening role of the audience is equally as important as the sound carriers who are mere heralds of the acoustic energy that they revel in.

When you have produced a genre-defining masterpiece in Monoliths & Dimensions, and the perception-expanding opus of the Scott Walker collaboration Soused, there could be an excusable lapse in your artistic drive and output, which was certainly a criticism that the core duo of Sunn O))), Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, had levelled at them on the release of 2015’s Kannon. With Life Metal, however, they have minimized those aspects of their sound which were perhaps becoming too comfortable for them, and too familiar for the audience. The result is a work rich in texture, depth and tenderness.