Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Album Review: Ulver/Sunn O))) - Terrestrials

Album Score: B
“Like some lost pilgrim stretching before the sun…” - Rygg

Kristoffer Rygg has certainly made his musical pilgrimages, from black metal allegedly recorded in a forest to haunting ambient-electronic opuses. It comes as little surprise, then, that his lifelong project – the enigmatic entity known as Ulver – would wander into the path of another avant-garde behemoth in Sunn O))). Both bands have basically done as they pleased since their inceptions, and though the latter duo has perhaps alienated as many as it has enthralled, rumors of a collaboration between such creative forces seized the attention of experimental music fans everywhere. Born of early-morning improvisations at Ulver’s studio in August 2008 and painstakingly honed in the years since, Terrestrials is the sort of album that dreams are made of – particularly the kind from which you wake up hyperventilating in a cold sweat.

With thirty-five minutes divided between only three songs, Terrestrials is nothing if not imposing. As is to be expected from Sunn O)))’s end, each composition is extremely slow to develop. Booming bass guitar amidst a plethora of instruments forms the foundation of each piece, while Rygg and Daniel O’Sullivan (the other half of Ulver) are responsible for the finer points that give the songs personality. “Let There Be Light,” named after a sunrise that concluded the main sessions, is a supreme exercise of restraint; its opening swells of guitar delay and mosquito-cloud violins sound almost primeval, swirling and condensing like the first vestiges of planet Earth. Even at its primordial ooze pace, the piece seems to increase in urgency as brass horns flicker in and out of the mix, flirting with major-key harmonies despite white noise saturating the atmosphere. A sitar lurks in the song’s peripheries, always audible but never the center of attention. The years of fine-tuning that went into Terrestrials is evident by the way its songs evolve steadily, even precariously, without a goal, yet with a purpose.

While there is nothing immediate about any of the songs here, a few moments stand out – milestones in a land that seems barren at first glance. In “Let There Be Light,” it is the entrance of ominous tom-toms near the song’s end; in “Western Horn,” the growling guitar that repeatedly surges into and retreats from the mix to mark a change in demeanor from paranoid to sinister. “Eternal Return” marks the most drastic departure from ambience and drone, as Rygg sings for the first and only time. His basso profundo vocals carry an authority, an omniscience even, that fits perfectly into his lyrics invoking ancient Egyptian prophecies. To that end, Terrestrials is saturated with a middle-eastern feel, from the faint sitar haunting the album at every turn to its imitation of Indian raga forms. As O’Malley would later recall, “the vibe in the room back then was more raga than it was rock. And despite the fact that the walls were literally shaking from volume, it was actually quite a blissed out, psychedelic session. I wanted to preserve that vibe in the final mix.”

“Eternal Return” finally does introduce the first concrete melodies of the album, with a rotary synth lead joining newly-tonal violins to carry the song to its seismic climax. Rygg’s vocals rise to a higher register before throbbing bass overpowers the song, scattering the instruments before it, and a reprise of the opening mantra brings things to a close. Following the incredibly drawn-out dynamics that comprise the bulk of Terrestrials, such an ending is not only welcome, but necessary in order to validate the rest of the effort. Indeed, Sunn O))) and Ulver live up to their reputations for being among the most long-winded bands in Western music, and their minimalistic tendencies reach a zenith on Terrestrials. It is, at its core, a collaboration that focuses on the seemingly trivial details and changes in music that affect us on the id level. Whether it succeeds is debatable – those seeking conscious entertainment will likely find little in this land. If, however, you are willing to close your eyes and let the shifting soundscapes of Terrestrials wash over you like that pilgrim in the day’s first light, then an experience like no other awaits.

Track List:

1. Let There Be Light   11:27
2. Western Horn   9:38
3. Eternal Return   14:10

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