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Sunn 0))) / Boris - Altar

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Artist: Sunn 0))) / Boris

Album: Altar

Label: Southern Lord

Review date: Oct. 9, 2006

The only problem with Altar, the new collaboration between doom merchants Sunn 0)) and Japanese metalloids Boris, is that the union is likely not permanent. The record is brilliant, a curiously seductive merging of each act’s monstrous strengths.

Frankly, it’s tough to distinguish who’s responsible for what sound – both bands are recalcitrant drone fiends with a taste for the titanic. Typically, Sunn 0))) specialize in sub-glacial riffs, while Boris serve up mountains of distortion and the occasional harmonious passage. But I suspect Altar’s track sheets would illustrate a broadened palette for each group.

Following a shuddering intro, opening cut “Etna” erupts in percussive thunder. Downtuned guitars wrestle as squalls of feedback are volleyed over chaotic snare rolls. It’s unusual to hear drums on a disc bearing Sunn 0)))’s imprint, but the addition is more than welcome.

“N.L.T.” would make a fine soundtrack to the black-robed ritual of the listener’s choosing. With reverse cymbal washes and gut-rumbling frequencies, the song seems ready-made for DIY conjurings. Southern Lord would do well to release an accompanying coffee-table grimoire.

Guest vocalist Jesse Sykes is a big part of Altar’s chilly charm. Gifted with a hollow, honeysuckle voice, she drops cadaverous couplets like the petals from a decaying rose. If that sounds overly hyperbolic, listen to the record in the dark, and tell me what sorts of visions appear. This is a fucking spooky-ass disc, full of bleak resonances and chimerical beauty. Its release date of Oct. 31 is more than fitting.

The ghostly outlines of “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” are drawn with silvery guitar and dreamlike piano. Sykes’ autumnal melodies put a tender spin on doom music, with spellbinding results. She followed them to their lair – can’t they keep her?

The Thrones' Joe Preston provides treated vocals to the monolithic “Akuma No Kuma.” Sections of the song evoke Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” or perhaps a deep-space battle between Godzilla and his rubber-suited nemesis Ghidorah. Rarely has humor been part of Sunn 0)))’s repertoire. Must be the Japanese influence.

Not long ago, I found myself wondering what ex-Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil has been up to. Wikipedia provided little info about his post-grunge activities, but here he is on Altar. Thayil adds gory fretwork to the album’s closing track, the dense and harrowing “Blood Swamp,” It’s an apt title, to be sure.

I’ve long expected Sunn 0))) to run out of ways keep their grim drone interesting. And Boris’ last record, Pink, was hardly as revelatory as previous releases. By joining forces, however, both bands have delivered the finest work of their respective careers. Best call off the funeral procession; there’s plenty of life in these undead riffs.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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