Gravetemple is one of many side-projects of Sunn O)))’s prolific guitarist Stephen O’Malley, and it competes with KTL for the honour of being the most experimental. This is hardly surprising when one considers that Australian avant-rock and drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi, as well as the ever-surprising former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar make up two further quarters of the line-up (when Ambient/Ruin was recorded in 2008, they’d added drummer Matt Sanders to the original trio). If all three have long displayed their metal credentials, something already well documented on their 2006 debut, The Holy Down, Ambient/Ruin showcases their ability to stretch the genre’s conventions, often to breaking point.
It’s not easy to immediately spot the “ambient” in this album, the “ruin” though, quickly jumps out from its twisted grooves: a sense of decay and darkness lies in O’Malley’s fuzzy, subterranean riffs, which are melded with moody electronic textures and Csihar’s black metal growl. However, the second side of four quickly establishes parameters that are far removed from standard “dark” metal, as sounds of running water and hushed rasps from Csihar introduce a seventeen-minute epic that is all about texture and subtlety over punishing aggression, with O’Malley and Ambarchi building up a steady, immovable drone on a mixture of synths and guitar that lingers heavily in the ether, pregnant with menace as Csihar’s apocalyptic vocals intone the blackest of sermons. If we can describe this music as “ambient”, it is ambient born from the ruins of metal music, as dark and haunted as anything by the likes of Lustmord or Soliloquy for Lilith-era Nurse With Wound, but with the steadfast, trance-like compositional presence of a Phill Niblock or CC Hennix piece. If some aspects of Sunn O))) can seem a tad camp, Gravetemple is nothing of the sort: the third side follows on from the second with a similar, albeit more caustic drone filling up the sound space, punctuated (punctured?) along the way by grim industrial effects and ever more cataclysmic vocalisations from Csihar, who might use words more than Hennix or LaMonte Young, but surely can be seen as something of an heir to their singular dedication to stretching vocal sounds into abstract realms.
A passage of near silence slices through this opening segment, replaced by an almost incongruous hum, like a fridge in an empty room (can a fridge be heard if no-one’s there to hear it?), as if the quartet is suggesting that ruin and darkness surround our everyday lives. From there, we are drop-kicked in the gut as Sanders unleashes a furious, typically black-metal blast beat and Attila rips his throat out in the grand old tradition of Nocturno Culto on early Darkthrone records. Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi still resist the temptation to descend into predictable riffology, however, instead twisting and transforming their feedback and synth drones into an ear-assaulting high-pitched tone that swirls around and above Sanders’s earthy pummeling like a malignant cloud.
Gravetemple are a difficult act to pin down, and this reissue only adds to the mystery. Ambient/Ruin is a hefty slab, yet it’s also elusive, moving through textures and styles in ways both disheveled and jarring, which might have something to do with the fact that each member recorded his parts in different locations to his bandmates. However, the way Ambarchi, O’Malley, Csihar and Sanders combine their talents and traditions to create a work that edges beyond metal and into the avant-garde is impressive (even imposing), and at times far more successful in this aim than anything Sunn O))) have achieved to date.