Live: Sunn O))) + Om @ London Koko, 14/12/09

Although I’ve never previously been let down by live performances by either Sunn O))) or Om, I knew that this gig presented a bit of a challenge for both. With their respective latest albums featuring an ambitious array of instruments and slight shift in compositional direction, how would each band tackle the task of taking their new material to the stage?

Unfortunately, Om don’t look too comfortable. The usual 20-minute stretches of improvised jam have been replaced with 6-minute song fragments and jerky switches in dynamic and tempo, flicking abruptly between sections and coming to dissatisfying halts just as they begin to scrape the surface on a potentially captivating groove. I enjoyed my previous encounters with Om because of the sense of instinct behind composition – the way in which the music seemed to flow out of Al Cisneros and Emil Amos without conscious thought. Here, everything feels too cold and calculated. Even more frustrating is the inclusion of a third member in the line up, providing hideous tribal wails that cut cruelly across the quieter sections and sound feeble in amongst the louder moments. Only during “Meditation Is The Practise Of Death” do Om offer up the slightest whiff of their usual high standard, with even the keyboard flute solo slotting in nicely over the bass and drums, but this doesn’t stop me feeling rather disappointed as their set comes to a close.

Sunn O))) have decided to keep the line up simple for the “Monoliths & Dimensions” material. It’s a wise move. Despite the vast array of instruments that crop up on the record itself, to include the harps and strings and conch shells in the live setup would be potentially messy and far too theatrical. Just four musicians grace the stage tonight, with Rhodes piano and trumpet being the only accompaniment to the standard trio of guitar, bass and vocals. It’s impressive how Sunn O))) have managed to strip away the elaborate instrumentation without detracting from the experience. Where Om sounded muddled in their attempts to translate their latest record into performance virtually note for note, Sunn O))) seem to have acknowledged that a primitive simplicity lies at the centre of their live appeal, and it helps when the core composition is as strong as that on “Monoliths & Dimensions”.

The gloomy chords of “Aghartha” kick the performance off, and it’s immediately apparent that, regardless of the various textural embellishments on record, the focus is still on the drone in the live setting. The volume is incredibly intense, teetering on the edge of excess, shuddering through each limb and threatening to tease bones out of joints. Stephen and Greg let the opening progression ring out for a good ten minutes before other musicians enter, with the ghoulish tinkle of Rhodes piano slinking gorgeous in between the chords, and Attila Csihar’s ominous vocal contributions spilling evil with every carefully pronounced syllable.

Roughly an hour later, “Big Church” takes the set to a gorgeous climax, as Stephen and Greg flail their guitars wildly in front of the amplifier stacks, wafting out waves of delicious feedback over Attila’s frantic muttering and bringing the ghastly ritual to a beautifully agonising peak. It’s chaotic in execution and yet beautifully crafted, with the wretched feedback slipping into perfect harmony with everything. The piece finally cuts to silence. Sound is sucked out like a vacuum and a deafening, well-deserved applause erupts in its place. It’s a good hour or so before my hands stop shaking from the bass and a sense of normality and astonishment starts to sink in, and even longer before the deeply satisfied grin fades from my face. Absolutely brilliant.