Sunn O))) / Boris "Altar"
Sunn O))) / Boris : Altar
Massive. Simply massive. Before even considering whether or not the album is good or not, one must acknowledge the sheer size of these songs. Comprising of the collaboration of the bands Sunn O))) and Boris, along with at least a dozen other collaborators (most from their contemporary bands, such as Earth and Thrones), there are many individual musicians making their numerous talents known. This album is interesting in the fact that it was promoted very heavily before it’s public release, on the fact of it’s many participants. The hype made the record very anticipated by it’s fans, and while it recieved generally good reviews by the fans, critical reviews from various music critics expressed several different reasons why they were disappointed at the end result.
So, what are my thoughts on the record? In this instance, the diversity of the album demands a track-by-track analysis.
For those who ordered the limited-edition 2-CD set, the album came with an extra disc, which consists of a single 28-minute track entitled “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom”, featuring Sunn O))), Boris, and Dylan Carson (see my previous “Earth” review). As usual for anything Earth related, this is a very long and extended guitar drone piece, however, it is made much more interesting due to the country-western guitar stylings of Carson’s more recent work, coupled with the drone guitar of Sunn O))) and the lead electric guitar of Boris’ guitarist. While it is rather good for what it is, I would hesitate it to call it phenomenal. One of my main concerns is, given to it’s extreme length, it is hard to remember the more interesting aspects of the composition: you know that they are there, but it is hard to retain the specifics about them.
On to the main album, the album opener begins wonderfully with a whine of guitar feedback, bowed bass, two echoing lead guitars (as if they were playing from outer space), and a menacing bass guitar crunching away at regular intervals. As a name, “Etna” fits very well with the feeling this song portrays: slowly rumbling menace. This is interspersed with spastic drumming at various parts of the song, but thankfully they complement the work rather than feel intrusive. Roughly six minutes into the song, the lead guitarist from Boris rips into a harrowing solo, as if signalling the beginning of an eruption. This guitar continues until the end of the piece, making it an excellent segue into the next song. Overall, excellent concept and execution.
The second song, “N.L.T.”, is the shortest song on the album, at 3:50. Composed of a bowed bass and softly shimmering gongs and chimes, it is an unsettling work, approaching the realm of dark ambience, much more so than either of these groups had hinted at in their previous works. Lustmord, Daniel Menche (who was also mentioned in comparison in another reviews), and other dark ambient artists immediately come to mind.
“The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” takes an immediate left turn, and is easily the best song on the album. Consisting of a mournful guitar, muted piano playing, cymbal taps, and smoky female vocals, it is a moving song which is truly outside what either band had previously accomplished (which is the first time in this album where that claim actually rings true). It is refreshing, to hear this song halfway through, and to not have to worry whether this or that element gets lost in the mix or overpowered by other insturmentation. All is in order, which is an apt comparison to the feeling one get’s when listening to this song.
The second half of the album is where most of the music critics express concern, and I will agree that some of their criticisms are correct.
“Akuma No Kuma” is, regrettably, somewhat over the top. The vocoder-vocals, provided by Joe Preston (of the band Thrones, previously of Earth fame) are strange at best and obnoxious at worst. Unfortunatly, that is not the only problem with this song. The drumming here seems to have been brought up too close in the mix, while the synthesizer lines are mostly unappealing and intrusive. Couple this with blaring horns (that seem very much at odds with the song) and the whole presentation is basically a failure, which is a shame, given that there are interesting ideas expressed in the song, but more work would have been needed to make them fit well together.
Things start to get slightly better with “Fried Eagle Mind” (which, by the way, get’s the ‘Weirdest Name’ award), with understated guitar pickings eerily echoing alongside Boris’ vocalist vocalisations (though whether or not she is actually speaking words is a somewhat nebulous and questionable debate). What sounds like whale noises and radio static are phased into the song halfway through. The guitar gradually gets harsher in tone by seven minutes, but by then, it’s too little, too late. It is a very meandering piece, but unfortunatly by the time it get’s relatively interesting, the overall interest in the song has disappeared. The tragic impression is given that, learning they were almost finished with the song, they rushed to add elements to save it, only in vain. Once again, interesting idea, but this time the only problem with the song was musical stagnation (and the rather jarring and abrupt ending).
Finally, while “Blood Swamp” is similar to “Etna” in many respects (and arguably just as good), it is hard to expect most listeners to be open to it after having to trod through the previous two tracks.
So, in some respects, the critics are correct: Altar is basically good, having many amazing moments that are sadly brought down later by several instances of musical overindulgence and conceptual meandering. Would I reccomend this album? Most definitely, as it encompasses the best of what the associated groups have done in the past, and points to interesting new avenues for them to explore.
~ by John Lithium on November 7, 2006.