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Scott Walker & Sunn O))) Album Playback, St. John's Church, Hackney

  • Written by  Robert Freeman

Queues around the square of St. John’s Church tonight, for that most nerdy of events, the ‘live album listen’. Although generally such events consist of nine men in jumpers and one woman (also in a jumper) sitting glass-eyed in the upstairs room of a pub looking at the ceiling while a 12” of Trout Mask Replica spins on a record player in the corner, tonight is a rather more baroque affair. Because OH MY BLOODY DAYS the BLOODY Scott Walker and BLOODY Sunn O))) collaboration has ONLY BLOODY GONE AND arrived. So we’re in a church. Obviously.

As the audience shuffles into the church* with the kind of awestruck terror one would expect from a group of people about to get tinnitus forever, some take their seats in the main audience in the centre, chairs pointing at two eight foot speaker stacks on the stage. This makes proceedings more sinister, a congregation seated in a church looking up at two huge, black stacks. Others walk up the stairs to sit in the pews overlooking the stage, next to the twenty foot high gothic organ that stands on a pulpit like a yawning Elder. The album artwork is displayed on a projector screen downstairs. Traditionally Sunn O))), it’s a textured, monochrome close-up, shapeless, organic, because the thing about Sunn O))) is they embrace the sublime as well as the uncanny. There is no shape, no form, because in fact, as Lovecraft was well aware back in the early twentieth century, formlessness is terrifying. In the same way as Sunn O))) albums have no discernible structure, when you can’t see the shape of something, it’s quite scary. The sound guy walks to the front, kneels at the altar, and presses a button. There is a collective intake of breath. The album starts. The first note. And oh my god, change of direction! It sounds a lot like The Shins! Only joking - it’s doom, and it’s really fucking scary.

From the first note, we have Walker’s ecstatic, bombastic wail "OHHHH, THE WIIIIDDEEE MISSSOOOURRRIII", followed by a, let’s be honest - pretty massive riff from Tos Nieuwenhuizen. The pews are shaking. It’s like someone asked Van Halen to switch to a minor key for a bit just to freak everyone out. The crowd stare at the speakers, and Walker’s disembodied voice sings, “Never enough... never enough”. Then... the money shot. DUUUURRRRRNNNNNNNNNN. That de-tuned drone C note, gained up and held for eternity, and what’s that sound in the background? Oh of course - it’s a bull whip.** “A beating would do me the world of good” sings Scott. Everyone’s mouths are open.

With the staccato titles of Soused - ‘Fetish’, ‘Bull’, ‘Herod 2014’ - no one thought they were for an easy listen.*** As perverse as anything on The Drift, Soused is conceptual Scott Walker drenched in Sunn O))). The 71 year old former-crooner turned auteur**** has spat out a terrifying album of concepts about euthanasia, infanticide, fetishised objectification, and Sunn O))) are the ‘primal noise’ that wraps around it. Plus, the album still sounds menacing, even when it’s not cranked up to a murderous volume or performed by a live band with thirty Model Ts behind them. “When you stepped into the studio,” says Walker of the recording of Soused, “it came up to your knees”. ‘Soused’ means dipped into something, like witches in a river, and here the noise is like a bath. The audience at St. John’s stare up at the black monoliths on the stage, an abyss breathing out sound, and the abyss stares back.

* Is it possible not to ‘shuffle’ into a church?  I mean I’ve never ‘gambolled’ into a church, for example.

** The performance of which Walker credits his friend ‘Pete the whipper’, from Bristol.

*** Although they are a bit easier on the tongue than previous Sunn O))) efforts. Monoliths And Dimensions’ ‘Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért’, for example.

**** Fun fact corner: Scott also spent several years in the Seventies, being trained in Gregorian chanting by monks.

Soused is available from amazon and iTunes.

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