This weekend features the fourth -and heftiest- showcase thus far of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, with the SUNN O))) guitarist himself featuring on both nights as part of Gravetemple, perhaps his most experimental act (which is saying something) and which features occasional SUNN O))) members Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar. Unsurprisingly, Cafe Oto is sold out on both nights, making it perhaps a daunting prospect for the respective nights’ opening acts Russell Haswell and crys cole, especially the latter.
Haswell at least almost matches Gravetemple for loudness, which takes some doing. The Englishman’s set starts with some precise sound manipulation of field recordings, notably wind and rain introduced by glooming bell tolls. It sometimes evokes the sensitive, evocative work of Chris Watson or, to a lesser degree, Thomas Köner, but the weather sounds slowly dissolve into jittery flutters that may or may not have started their sonic lives as bird wing samples but, if so, are transformed here into jarring industrial thuds and klangs over which Haswell gradually layers pounding synth oscillations. Haswell starts his performance seated at his laptop, but as the piece pitches into a shattering noise climax, he rises to his feet, twisting the buttons on a distortion pedal as the barrage of screeching drone swamps over the audience. It serves as a taste of what Gravetemple will provide later on the first night, the sort of noise wall The Rita would be proud of. I’m not sure what some of the hip SUNN O))) fans are making of it.
On the second night, however, Canadian sound artist crys cole provides a remarkable contrast to the crushing volume of her fellow performers with a set that is strikingly quiet, to the clear frustration of some audience members (London audiences, eh?). Using several percussive (especially a brush stick) or “non-musical” implements amplified by a couple of contact mics. cole’s website describes “a fascination with microsonics that test the limits of audibility and intentionality”, and the ambiguity of the sounds she produces, bolstered by hissing vocal interventions, is interesting, at times even fascinating, but, as many have noted, there can be an element of quietness for quietness’ sake to music like this. The most assertive moments are when she rubs a microphone on a sheet of metallic paper, which delivers distorted crackles but, with cole clearly frustrated by some spectators impatience, the set ends too soon for it to gather any momentum.
The signs that Gravetemple have been planning to be as loud as Oto will allow are apparent from the sound check, which apparently drew complaints from the theatre next door and has the windows rattling as the punters queue outside. Despite this, there’s a great contrast between their two sets, with the first being ear-shattering whilst the other is more nuanced and ultimately nothing short of triumphant. On the first night, Attila Csihar kicks off proceeding by rasping ominously into his microphone (I can’t make out the words, and he tells me afterwards that he mixes languages and even his own invented words) whilst Ambarchi and O’Malley sit impassively with their guitars on their laps. Csihar’s vocalisations are typically dramatic, enhanced by effects that stretch and loop his voice until it becomes a sinister one-man Gregorian choir. When Ambarchi and O’Malley join the fray, they immediately kick into feedback-heavy, sustained doom metal notes at full volume, instantly evoking SUNN O)))’s cavernous take on metal tropes. The volume is quite simply deafening, with the notes held so long that the feedback shudders into one’s guts and rattles the bones. As the low, thundering riffs build and build, often in tandem, the music takes on the texture of minimal drone, with Csihar happy to sit back with his eyes closed and absorb the wall of noise. Gradually, O’Malley starts to crack out some repetitive riffs, whilst Oren Ambarchi distorts and mangles scatter-gun solos via an Electro-Harmonix effects pedal, throwing out metallic, almost industrial noises that only serve to ratchet up the volume levels. Meanwhile, Csihar refuses to let the guitars overwhelm his singing, his bank of effects twisting and contorting his vocals into a series of alien chants. When Ambarchi takes to the drums to bring the piece to a rambunctious close, it seems almost like an afterthought, the volume of O’Malley’s riffage almost completely masking his brittle polyrhythms.
Csihar admitted to me that Gravetemple’s first set was a bit too loud and ramshackle, and boy do they make amends on Sunday. This time proceedings are started with the guitars, and more of the familiar, imposing and loud doom riffs, with similar levels of monomaniacal sustain as Ambarchi and O’Malley displayed on Saturday, although with greater levels of understanding and variety. O’Malley once again unfurls some sturdy riffs, whilst Ambarchi almost transforms his axe into a six-stringed noise generator. Csihar’s vocals are even more imposing this time, as he has more space to weave his oblique narratives into the mix. Midway through the set, the volume drops, allowing for expansive, droning flourishes married to Csihar’s gothic rumbles and saturated moans. With a more subtle approach than the previous night, Gravetemple display the full range of their talents, enhancing how open-minded the trio is, and how they use metal archetypes as a mere launching pad to explore more diverse sonic realms. They slowly twist and re-build a piece that increasingly takes on epic proportions, culminating in a mantra-like finale where O’Malley’s righteous guitar playing and Csihar’s incomparable vocal turns fly ever-upwards, propelled by another bout of octopus-like drum thrashes from Ambarchi, this time properly amplified to transform the sound into an almost psychedelic workout. It’s all brought to a thrilling close when Ambarchi pounds on a gigantic gong, leaving O’Malley’s dying notes and Csihar’s final invectives to be drowned out by the audience’s rapturous applause. This showcase at times risked falling into self-indulgence but, guided by these three stalwarts, ended on a note that touched on transcendence.