Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas at the highest Altar of them all

It's pretty difficult to think of something to listen to on Christmas Eve that can somehow be linked to the theme of the season, but isn't too hackneyed or cliché. So, I thought an album with the title Altar sounded at least vaguely acceptable on the first count and the fact that it is performed by a collaboration of American drone metalists, Sunn 0))) (pronounced 'sun', I'm told), and Japanese noise trio, Boris, made me think it was a pretty sure bet on the second, too.

I first heard this album quite some time ago, driving home late at night, with the radio tuned to Julian Day's tremendously exciting, interesting and daring programme on ABC Classic FM, New Music Up Late. The subterranean drone of unfathomably deep bass guitars, garnished with percussion that gave the music a dark ambience rather than a beat was far too colossal a sound for my puny little car radio, but I could pick up enough of its earth-trembling vibrations to know that this was something as significant to music as black holes are to the cosmos. The electric guitars, drums, synths and occasional vocals all merge here into one intense, monolithic mass - ar once rich and sparse, thick and austere, impenetrable and yet sucking you into it, as if it were a vacuum.

But not everything on Altar is dense nothingness. Unexpectedly wedged between the thick, endless night of 'N.L.T.' and the groaning, sliding, haunted blackness of 'Akuma No Kuma' is the gentle, yet somehow still droning, minimalist airiness of 'The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)', where Jesse Sykes sings forlornly against a couple of guitar chords, and a lonely waltz beat, finding a sort of peace, some rest, within the dark.

In 'Fried Eagle Mind', Wata (Boris vocalist) does the vocals, spectral, ghostly, like mist rising from murky marshes, beneath which countless lives and secrets lie buried.

But the longest - and arguably the greatest - track on the album is the final 'Blood Swamp', where drone dominates everything, sparse and frightening, absorbing you into its oblivion. The droning bass seems to descend deeper and deeper into its own void, turning in on itself, while straggling guitars tiptoe ominously above. It's music that envelops you in darkness, no matter how many lights you have on while you're listening to it.

So does something as nihilistic as this have a place on Christmas Eve, when most of the rest of the Western world is listening to songs about reindeer and babies in mangers surrounded by lambs and gold? Well, at least for me, this music is big rather than bleak - its darkness is the darkness of enormity, not of desolation. It lets you look into the vastness of the universe, and to be somehow enshrouded in it, and maybe even to be comforted by the realisation that it is so much bigger than mangers, and sleighbells, and you.

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