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Sunn O))) / Chrome Hoof - Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 18 June 2007, Meltdown


ImageMy interest in Sunn O))) was first piqued when they played the unlikely venue of central London disco emporium, the Hippodrome, last year and reports came back of ear splitting noise and strange goings on. So when they were announced as part of Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown festival this year, off I went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.


First up are Chrome Hoof of whom buzz is strong. There are 13 of them - including two drummers, two go-go dancers a la Bow Wow Wow, brass, a cellist and a violinist - all dressed in shiny robes and hoods. Dry ice billows out. I'm up for this but unfortunately they immediately acknowledge the audience, rather destroying any mystique, and musically they're rather dull. They start with an incantation, reminiscent of Space Ritual era Hawkwind but instead of the music then cranking up into a glorious groove like the 'wind did, in this instance it just jogs along in an uninteresting prog-metal way with little to commend it. Subsequent songs all have a similar tempo and lack of definition. There's plenty to look at - the singer becomes a giant silver goat with green eyes at one point, and I know that sounds kind of interesting but it wasn't really - but that's just as well. Disappointing.


ImageSunn O))), Jarvis confirmed at the start of the evening, is pronounced 'Sun' and a less apt name is difficult to imagine. This is a performance conceived by Dante, and as performed by Bergman's Death, played out completely seriously sometimes in near complete darkness and at best in gloom. It takes me twenty minutes to work out how many band members there are - five, two on keyboards, two on guitars, standing right up against the amps at the back, and a vocalist, who doesn't utter a recognisable word all night. At first he doesn't seem to be human. He emerges from complete darkness after about five minutes but it's impossible to work out what one is looking at - something is floating in two green spotlights and I actually thought I was looking at an elephant's head at one point (well, I was sat fairly far back...). After time it turns out that it's a man dressed in an oversized gown and hood and wearing a fake wig and perhaps beard. He groans a lot. The amount of dry ice on display gives the impression that the band are making a comment about the incipient smoking ban. At one point the singer, after a short time away, comes back on, leans over the stage amp, and an explosion of dry ice hits him full on. Showing no little spirit, he stays put.


Meanwhile the band (also dressed in robes) are making noise, noise and more noise in an incessant stream. Disappointingly it's not organ-rearrangingly loud but it is leading to a fair amount of walk out. The empty seats next to me are filled after 20 minutes by three well-dressed youngsters who last about five minutes - god knows what they were expecting. Part of the performance is fascinating, part boring and part transcendental - but as a piece, it's on the whole rather impressive. All sorts of antecedents come to mind - Glenn Branca, John Cage (as an antithesis), Swans, Napalm Death (at length), Spinal Tap - but this stands up for its visuals as much as the noise. At times what one looks at on stage is rather beautiful, especially near the end when the stage is only lit by a constellation of red lights glowing on the amps. The set ends with the band flat on their back as the feedback ebbs away. Crowd explode and the band jump up, clearly excited, somewhat destroying the moment but one can't begrudge them their joy.


Author: Keith Knight