At the very beginning of 2018, Sunn O))) cofounders and guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson set out on a path toward producing a new album. They were both determined to create new music and a new method of working in the studio without forgetting the long and proud history of production and studio accomplishments forged during their first two decades of existence.

From this new approach, they have created Life Metal, their first studio album in four years, out via Southern Lord Recordings on April 19. “Every time we make a record, we try to make it somewhat different than the one before it,” Anderson explains. “It’s really to challenge ourselves and also to keep it interesting for ourselves. It’s going to be interesting for the audience as well, and our fans. That is sort of engrained already. Then, as far as the way of working in the studio, we chose a different recording engineer and studio to work with.”

In July 2018, Sunn O))) spent over two weeks in Chicago at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini at the helm. “Working with Albini is our 20th [anniversary] present to ourselves,” Anderson confesses. “Our method in the past and the process were very lengthy. It took a long time to get the album together, and there was a lot of different recordings of different instrumentation or different vocals in different countries, and then, all these pieces were kind of put together somehow to create a final piece in the end.”

“There was a lot of editing, a lot of layering of things,” he continues. “With Steve, it is more like he captures the band as they’re playing in the moment and that’s the album. We knew that was going to be really challenging for us, because we basically had the crutch or luxury before to add different guitar tracks. The way we would make things sound so dense and heavy with the guitars in the past was to just stack them. With this one, it’s one performance. There is still a ton of amps, but they’re all playing at once and the person who’s playing it is not going back and doing it again. It is very in-the-moment, and he is such a skilled engineer and so focused on detail like the mic placement or the kind of mics to use. Steve is already five steps ahead of what’s going on. He’s got this bigger picture in his head. It was really interesting; it really challenged us. Personally, I felt like I had to be more focused and really had to step up my game.”

Before working with Albini, Anderson and O’Malley gathered twice for writing, conceptualizing, and riff woodshedding in the very building where the band were formed: Downtown Rehearsal in Los Angeles. “I have had a rehearsal space down there since 1996. Sunn O))) came out of that space. Goatsnake came out of there. That’s where my stuff is currently, so that’s where we’re going to play because we can play loud,” Anderson laughs. “Stephen and I got together twice for preproduction. He came to Los Angeles both times. The first time he came, a ton of the material he was coming up with and the material I was coming up with, some of the tonal choices of amps that we were using and the tweaking of our sound, it just had a different feeling. We were like, ‘Wow, we’re coming up with some different stuff here.’”

Life Metal’s themes developed in terms of brightness and energy, while visionary cues pointed toward subconscious areas of practice. Sunn O))) realized they were exploring other zones of consciousness via sound manipulation. “I really feel like my writing has shifted and gone in a direction that has a different mood to it. I really wanted to challenge myself personally to make heavy music that doesn’t have to be so dark,” Anderson explains. “That music is great; I’ve been a fan of it and played it all my life, but what about trying to present it in a different sort of frame or different light? That’s how I’m trying to challenge myself right now, because I’ve done this for so many years, and also, I want to keep it interesting.”

“It’s sort of a personal reflection of my life as well,” he adds. “Having children and being a father has really changed me in a lot of ways—and for the better in some ways—but I have a different outlook on things now. Trying to be selfless in my life is important, and that’s changed me and changed my mood and how I’m thinking about music and how I’m writing at the moment.”

The resulting album’s title, Life Metal, represent this new approach. “That term, when I first heard about it, I was at a party with Nicke Andersson. [His band] The Hellacopters had just played in Los Angeles, and me and my friends were obsessed, and still are, with Entombed and Nihilist, his older bands,” Anderson shares. “We were, like, just punishing this guy, bugging him about stories and stuff like that. He ended up telling the story about when Entombed got signed to Columbia Records in the ’90s. He was getting death threats, and all his old friends from Norway were pissed and saying he was a sellout and that he was no longer death metal—he was ‘life metal.’ Me and my friends thought that was hilarious.”

“So, it kind of became this inside joke among Sunn O))). When something was positive or bright or happy, it was life metal, not death metal,” he continues. “Stephen pointed out that it’s kind of an insult in the Norwegian black metal community, but we just thought, for us, it’s a term, and we like the way it sounds, kind of representing the antithesis of what some people might imagine our music is or that we’re, like, these really gloomy, dark people. At times, we can be, but it’s not just one thing with us. I think the life metal thing, with us, is that we’ve all sort of gotten to this point in our lives where there are some really great things happening. I had some children, Stephen had some really positive things happen in his life, and [keyboardist] Tos [Nieuwenhuizen] did as well. The sound of the music we’re creating isbrighter, and the overall aesthetic and feeling of it isn’t so gloomy and dark. It was still heavy, but it kind of had this really epic, shining light feeling to it. So, Life Metalas a title of the record really fit where everyone’s heads are at, everyone’s tone and the music we were creating.”

Paintings by visual artist Samantha Keely Smith graciously adorn the album’s cover and collide ideas of 19th century romanticism and late 20th century abstract expressionism with Sunn O)))’s new approach to music. “I don’t know. There’s something about that art that is very powerful,” Anderson explains. “The colors were really different than we’ve ever had on a Sunn O))) cover. It wasn’t super dark or grey. So, I was immediately connecting with these paintings. They were perfect for the title, for our music. She was really generous with us about using them and also really excited. It was a great connection between the two of us.”

Life Metal also features other collaborations on the first song, “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths.” “The intro is actually stolen from Bathory, the [1988] Blood Fire Death record,” Anderson admits. “What happened was that Stephen and I are obsessed with Bathory, especially that record. That’s my personal favorite. In the past, on [2005’s] Black One, there is a riff from Blood Fire Death that we just slowed down. Same notes, but you can’t tell; it’s unrecognizable, because we play it so slow. I love that intro of the horses going into battle, and I just joked and said, ‘Why don’t we run that through some amps?’ It was funny, because I was thinking, ‘Albini is not going to be into this idea. He’s probably going to be like, “I don’t know, guys,”’ but right away, he was like, ‘Where can I find that?’ He looked it up on YouTube and then ran that through his board. The only computer in the room is the one that Steve uses on chat forums, but there is no recording going on there. So, there was a computer involved in that he transferred YouTube, ran it through his board, and then we ran it through some amplifiers and distortion pedals and added our own horse samples.”

Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir lent her incredible attitude, as well as her voice and breath to the song. “The vocals idea is some writing of a poem that Stephen had found and basically arranged it into the song,” Anderson says. “That’s personally my favorite track on the record, and I think part of it has to do with the fact that I think her voice is amazing. I really like the way that Steve recorded her vocals, where it kind of sounds like she’s right next to you whispering in your ear, and the way he mixed it, the vocals in relation to the music. It’s just genius.”

Guðnadóttir also plays cello on the closing song, “Novae.” “That song is for us, and the riffs that we play together are very reminiscent of the vibe of our early stuff,” Anderson says. “We wrote them that way too—just Stephen and I, like, ‘Let’s make a riff that sounds like the first Entombed record slowed down as far as you can go, and then here’s one that kind of sounds like the Melvins.’ We were kind of riffing back and forth and throwing ideas out there. That song, ‘Novae,’ was kind of another 20th anniversary gift to ourselves.”

Tim Midyett, a close friend of Anderson and O’Malley’s since their Seattle days in the early ’90s and a member of Silkworm, Bottomless Pit, and Mint Mile, and prolific new music composer Anthony Pateras also joined in on Life Metal. “It was really cool playing with Tim, because he was someone I’ve known since the early ’90s. He’s really into jazz, and he’s also very into experimental music, so it was a good fit, and I think his bass playing on the record is great. It adds this really cool sort of depth to what the guitars are doing,” Anderson explains. “Then, Anthony, we gave him a rough of the track, and then he played some great organ, and that was sent to us. That was the only tracking on the record that was not done at Electrical Audio, but it sounds perfect.”

In the autumn of 2019, Sunn O))) will reveal a second, more meditative LP entitled Pyroclasts, also recorded by Steve Albini parallel to Life Metal. “That album is going to be made up of five drone pieces. They’re all about 11 or 12 minutes. We were actually staying in the same building that we were recording at, so we would wake up in the morning and have a cup of coffee and then go down and start playing music. It’s really great. It helps you stay focused,” Anderson says. “What we tried to do every morning was start the day, pick a key, and then just play completely free and drone in that key. We also would try to do it at night as well, before the day was done. It was kind of like taking a nice warm bath or having a glass of wine. It was very relaxing and you kind of ended the day on a nice note.”

“This record is made of those drones, those morning-ritual or night-ritual drones,” he continues. “I think it’s going to be something for the diehard fans. It’s kind of an interesting story that might attract people to Life Metal. This is kind of a bonus and, to me, something special for people who really like Sunn O))).”

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:: New Noise Magazine Metal Web Editor ::

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