At first glance, Sunn O))) and Ulver seem like a match made in heaven. Both are masters of the genre roulette: the former practicing in drone metal, spoken word, blackened doom metal, art rock, and jazz; the latter, black metal, glitch music, trip-hop, and progressive metal. Just like with Sunn O)))’s collaboration with Scott Walker on 2014’s Soused, the marriage of these two experimental heavyweights on same-year’s Terrestrials is – at the very least – an exciting prospect. It’s also not without precedence – Ulver worked with Sunn O))) on the White1 album, and members from either band recorded music together as the ambient/drone music band Aethenor.
Terrestrials is the result of three “live improvisations,” mixed and produced by Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) and Kristoffer Rygg of Ulver. The group screwed around at Ulver’s Crystal Canyon studio,1 then Ulver created preliminary arrangements for the actual recording process. The album was released in early February through Southern Lord Records, which Greg Anderson of Sunn O))) founded.
It’s unlike anything in either band’s discography, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Terrestrials is a synthesis of modern classical music, drone music, and noise. While there’s definitely the darkness and foreboding that characterizes so much of either band’s works, it isn’t necessarily metallic in the way of a heavy metal album. Even the most downtempo2 of Sunn O)))’s “Alice” from Monoliths & Dimensions did not elicit the same blissed-out, candles-on-the-shelves atmosphere that is Terrestrials. It’s almost entirely instrumental, with the exception of Rygg’s deep clean vocals wafting through the fog halfway through closing track “Eternal Return.” Of course, there’s tension: it’s Sunn O))) and Ulver, after all.
But Terrestrials‘ problem is that it never lets that tension go. Terrestrials is a product of the slow burn, but that burn never gives way to any flames. The nearly twelve-minute long opener “Let There Be Light” constantly stays at a single steady, mildly flickering level that never resolves, but dissipates. The introduction of brass instrumentation opens up some new sonic territories, but they’re; like the following year’s Kannon by Sunn O))), Terrestrials is remarkably restrained, but in the way of safeness rather than introspection. Everything is at a single level, and each of these three tracks meander more than they inspire.
There are several sections worth checking out. The final third of “Let Their Be Light” introduces a low-bass rumble with a percussive break to the otherwise forgettable classical music, and it’s quite effective at establishing a bit of dread. “Western Horn” features an insect-like buzzing juxtaposed with the standard Sunn O))) guitar drone, with the best sections toward the beginning of the track. “Eternal Return” has a minute-long amp feedback break with string flourishes that are overtaken from a simple synthesizer progression and Rygg’s vocals from (6:00) to (10:00).
Terrestrials is not a poor release, but it is moderately disappointing – especially from these two heavyweights. Out of all the Sunn O))) collaborations, this is the least provoking (thought or otherwise). Terrestrials is pretty, but it will not stick with the listener as anything more than background music; and that is not what either of these bands deserve.
1. Let There Be Light – (11:27) – ★★☆☆☆
2. Western Horn – (9:37) – ★★★☆☆
3. Eternal Return – (14:09) – ★★★☆☆
1Sorry, I meant laid “the foundations,” according to the liner notes.
2Can that word even be applied to heavy metal? Whatever.