In my endless quest to seek out the darkest and scariest music on the planet, I've frequently returned to a few experimental bands who are supremely skilled at bending and twisting the conventions of rock and metal into strange, new and often nightmarish shapes. One of my favorite groups in this category is Norwegian band Ulver, who evolved from an old-school black metal unit in the '90s into a highly experimental collective, focusing their energies on everything from '60s psychedelic rock (Childhood's End) to neoclassical and avant-garde compositions (Messe). The main connecting thread between their diverse material is a focus on arcane, ominous and often terrifying themes (an approach noted by director Scott Derrickson, who incorporated the band's tracks into his 2012 horror hit Sinister).
Another heavy hitter with a huge cult following is the enigmatic Seattle, WA-based “drone metal” team Sunn O))), whose onstage image of faceless figures clad in dark ceremonial robes has acid-etched itself into the brains of those lucky souls who have experienced their surreal, earth-shaking live performances, now legendary for being among the loudest concerts ever played (even their name and logo is taken from a vintage brand of high-watt amplifier). Their colossal, distorted bass drones are both mesmerizing and frightening, forming the foundation for multiple layers of ritual chants, exotic instrumentation and bizarre, disorienting effects.
It was only a matter of time before these two bands joined forces, and that moment came in August of 2008 in Oslo, Norway, when they collaborated on a series of three improvisational jams that spanned an entire night. The tracks then entered a lengthier post-production stage, as the artists worked both separately and together to gradually shape and treat the sounds to enhance the exotic, dreamlike, hallucinogenic feel. Years later, the finished product is finally being released by Southern Lord Records as the full-length album Terrestrials, comprised of three humongous, cosmos-spanning cuts of surreal, hypnotic doom.
The massive opening track “Let There Be Light” begins in cut-up fragments and phases of distant guitar chords, which slowly assemble into a steady drone that climaxes with a fusion of Sunn's signature feedback swells and the symphonic elements Ulver employed so well on Messe (including some startling percussion blasts). It's followed by “Western Horn,” a buzzing, hazy soundscape which lays down a gargantuan slab of bass drenched in heavy feedback, against which orchestral and industrial elements and an Indian raga-style drone are layered to create a thick, bubbling sonic storm. An amazing chanted lead vocal (by Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg) and a plaintive violin solo form the emotional heart of the closing cut “Eternal Return,” further transformed in post-production into a whirlpool of pulsing, densely-textured sound reminiscent of minimalist classics by Philip Glass (Candyman) and Michael Nyman (Ravenous), forming the soundtrack to a strangely sensual fantasy tale.
I'll always have a soft spot for bands who set out to create a distinctive mood by stepping way outside the boundaries of their genres, and Terrestrials represents two groups who excel in that area. While they've spent many years developing a firm grip on the ground rules of rock and metal, Sunn O))) and Ulver immediately set about breaking those rules, allowing their song patterns to evolve and grow, playing out at a steady, organic pace, and “sculpting” with sound by adding more and more layers of detail and ambiance until the listener is slowly enveloped in a vast cloud of inescapable doom. If you're expecting hooks and a defined verse-chorus-breakdown structure, you won't find it here; but if you dig the kind of music that slowly carries you off to an ultra-dark but strangely inviting place, you'll find some eerie lights-out delights within these tracks.