You won’t need to pinch yourself awake: As if to ensure listeners that Soused isn’t some fantastic nightmare or haunted daydream, Scott Walker and Sunn O))) begin their five-track, 50-minute collaboration with a brief series of exclamation marks. Walker’s voice sweeps in with extreme operatic gusto, delivering a set of simple, sliding phrases over sparkling synthesizers. Dual classic rock riffs trail those hails, like “Paradise City” abutting a scrap of “Heartbreaker”. And as it all fades toward silence, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley shatter the creeping calm with their expected amplifier army. To emphasize the madness, the sound of an American bullwhip slaps at the back of the din. Yes, Scott O))) is real, and yes, it is a touch ridiculous.
In the wake of Lulu, the intriguing but errant byproduct of a more famous elder leading a more famous metal act, such a partnership felt like a joke someone might have made on a message board in 2011. Gabriel and Mastodon? Jagger and Down? Walker and Sunn O)))? Sure, line them up, but don’t assume that they will all net Lulu’s Warner Brothers deal. At least there was stylistic precedent for this hypothetical pairing. Though Walker was once a pop star, his work later in life has been experimentally ambitious, adding webs of dissonance to song cycles that explored discontent in dozens of guises. Even now, his 1995 LP, Tilt, seems diabolically heavy and jarring, employing unease as compositional exigency. Released only seven months apart, his 2006 album, The Drift, and Sunn O)))’s Black One, feel now like complementary surveys of the same seismic divide. Walker originally wrote “Lullaby,” Soused’s jarring and arching climax, in 1999. His music doesn’t fear the dark.
As legend has it, Sunn O))) approached Walker a half-decade ago with a blind call for collaboration. He’d never heard them, but they hoped he’d pen something to sing for “Alice”, the orchestra-gilded finale of their 2009 LP, Monoliths & Dimensions. He didn’t, but he did become a convert to the band’s maximum-volume, minimum-movement metal. He began writing new material with Anderson, O’Malley and, it seems, both their instrumental and thematic tones in mind. Together, they recorded those pieces earlier this year in London, with several of Walker’s more customary contributors adding drums, horns, keyboards and electronics.
Soused is billed to “Scott Walker + Sunn O))),” an ostensible meeting of equals. On T-shirts, the project is even playfully dubbed Scott O))), written in the same lower-cased, bold-faced font that the electronics company and drone duo have long used. And as is his wont, O’Malley designed the packaging for Soused, an austere grayscale colossus guided by a system of holistic organization.
But the music itself never tries to sell the conspiracy of equal and reciprocal collaboration. Sure, Sunn O))) made the first move here, but any real work required Walker’s acceptance and effort. This is, then, a Scott Walker album, where Sunn O)))—Anderson, O’Malley and longtime multi-instrumentalist and collaborator TOS Nieuwenhuizen—serve as a very large, potent instrument within Walker’s band, or maybe a set of them, like a rack of guitars pulled from a closet. During “Brando”, they follow him, saturating the background but almost always ceding the spotlight. When he sings “A beating would do me a world of good,” Anderson and O’Malley bend inside his shadow, taking the riff’s next step down.
Anderson and O’Malley even flash back to their high-school days in Thorr’s Hammer, or their subsequent separate bands, for “Fetish”, the album’s singular and brilliant flashpoint. Just before the song’s halfway point, they’ve traced Walker’s voice only with ominous noise and tracked him with mid-range melodies. “He imagines he feels it, tugging and clinching, hears it rustling and rising,” Walker yells, pausing suddenly as if to summon help. Sunn O))) answers, matching the beat of drummer Ian Thomas with loaded guitar and low-lying bass, like they’re an insurgent young doom band again, racing toward a crossover crescendo. Later in the track, they sprawl out beneath him, their amps and instruments harmonizing obediently alongside screeching trumpet, stuttering drums and stabbing static. They are, perhaps for the first time, part of a force greater than their own.
Sunn O)))’s career has been defined by their search for ways to augment their riffs, to make them bigger than simply big; but after 15 years and a half-dozen full-lengths, they’ve yet to take the routes through which Walker pulls them here. The only prototypically Sunn O))) moment arrives during the back half of “Bull,” when they cycle a slow set of notes across occasional percussion and over scrambled field recordings. But it’s mostly a mid-record volume respite, a break in the command of Walker’s stentorian elegance.
Soused documents depravity and wanton desire, or needing something—pain or the absence of it, protection or the illusion of it, privacy or the desecration of it—so bad it’s ripping your worldview into pieces. Walker empties volumes of data into those ideas, pinballing between 17th century painting debates, New Testament infanticide and Iroquois lullabies within the course of the shape-shifting “Herod 2014”. In less than a minute of “Bull”, he moves from a string of screamed Latin imprecations to a recited text message, reprinted in the liner notes as an iChat bubble. During “Brando”, he details successive episodes in which the named actor was beaten, shouting the elliptical list with an urgency that gives the sadomasochism a private power.
Though Walker was once a sort of balladeer icon, his lyrics trend toward the obtuse and ponderous. The words on Soused don’t forsake those qualities, necessarily, but there is a certain relatability and readability here, as if this return to rock ’n’ roll has pulled him back toward earth. Despite the macabre battle between the innocent and the hunter of “Herod 2014,” Walker delights in the language, using alliteration and end-rhyme to fashion what could pass for old-fashioned folklore. “The deer fly, the sand fly, the tsetse can’t find them,” he offers, his voice cold but comforting, like that of a wolf in disguise. “The goon from the Stasi is left far behind them. Their delicate derma won’t witness a ray.” In this new relationship, Walker seems to have rediscovered a sometimes-hidden element of his own work—its playfulness and its perversity, the coexistence of the smile and the frown.
Is it selfish, then, to hope that this might be only the start, the unlikely origin of a partnership that extends beyond a one-off album? Walker is, of course, infamously reluctant to talk about his future in making music, and he can be rather chelonian with his output; much the same applies for Sunn O))), at its core a duo of dudes involved in a dozen other things. That’s one reason Soused feels more like an event and an experience than a vital, persevering record for either party. It’s good and, at times, completely absorbing, especially when Walker and the amplifiers seem to be fighting on the same side of a great battle. Soused is compelling, almost inherently so, but it’s not a classic. What if they gave this time to be more than a mere oddity, so as to feel no rush to launch from the gates and exclaim that this is, in fact, real? We’ll probably never find out, but we never thought we’d hear Scott O))), anyway.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1w6WtSs