I wasn't assigned to cover Sunn O)))
, nor was I fan looking forward to seeing the show live.
I essentially stumbled into the band’s concert at Moogfest
with a few friends after I was done with panels for the day, not expecting much other than a loud metal show.
Earlier in the morning I’d found myself chatting with a stranger when some panel guests were running late to the event. Unfamiliar with the vast majority of artists performing at Moogfest, I asked the guy what shows he was looking forward to. He glossed over Gary Numan
and Explosions in the Sky
and then told me a fun story (that may or may not be true) about this band called Sunn O)))
According to the young man whose name I cannot remember and I wish I could credit, Sunn O))) was scheduled to play in the Carolina Theatre. However, due to concerns that the volume of their amplifiers could impact the stability of equipment affixed to the walls and ceiling in the venue, the show was moved outside to Motorco Park.
Another man sitting in front of us turned around and asked if we were talking about Sunn O))). He was a fan and had seen a show in person before. My new friend told him about the safety concerns.
“The bass could literally chip paint from walls”, he said. One of the main complaints about the band, according to unnamed stranger number two, was that the bass would shake your insides so hard you might get physically ill.
So of course I was going to the show.
I hadn’t heard of drone metal
until I talked to the two gentlemen that morning. Apparently it's characterized by heavy bass, long, drawn out notes and growling vocals. That sounds all fine and good and yes, a bit imposing and scary. But until I could feel my drink vibrate at the first pluck of the bass during sound check from near 200 yards away from the stage, I didn’t truly understand what I was about to see.
What followed was a satanic fever dream of massive cloaked men with giant, imposing beards expelling bass lines that resonated so deeply and loudly you could feel your lungs shake and the contents of your stomach vibrate and bubble like a shaken can of cola.
To reduce the experience to words is an injustice, as the experience supercedes sound and content and the impactfulness of the show is derived more from the physical fluctuations in vibrations assaulting the body than the notes played.
If Satan held shows in Hell, this is what his headliner would sound like. They spat their perversions of the electric bass and unintelligible choruses of growls through an opaque fog backlit by harsh blue and purple lights. In what seemed more ritual of the Baphomet than performance to please an audience, Sunn O))) sludged through more than hour of impossibly loud bass notes and droning chants.
Unfortunately, and as I stated previously, I was not there in the capacity of press. My Moogfest partner for the night and friend Alex, despite earplugs and a fairly empty belly, was too nauseous and uncomfortable to stay to the end.
So we left before the final song, when I’m told the band’s legendary guest vocalist Atilla Csihar entered the stage in a spiny mirrored suit looking like something John Carpenter wishes he could have a nightmare about.
The show was strange, off putting, utterly fascinating, abrasive and physically nauseating. In other words, it’s everything I wished Moogfest would be. My father asked me about the theme of Moogfest. I had a hard time explaining. I suppose it’s about “synthetic” music, tech counterculture and futurology.
But after I saw this show, I think I understood a bit better. It's about what the synthesizer birthed—being strange as hell and giving a big fuck you to anyone who doubts your movement or art or culture. Decry the normal and embrace the offensive. Make your art without fear of repercussion from the fans or public. Never be afraid to innovate. Never be afraid to be weird.
To me, this was the most important hour of Moogfest. The draws of the event were interesting panels on emerging tech, futurology, and postmodern thought, alongside nights of EDM music. Sunn O))) didn’t fit any of that criteria. In what I think was a brilliant move by the organizers, they picked an obviously polarizing and sonically obnoxious band to headline the last night of the concert.
Executives said “screw you” and let their freak flag fly. And to me, that's what Moogfest is. Yeah, we can delve deep. Moogfest provided a wonderful economic opportunity for Durham—it’s a chance for Moogfest execs to move their festival into a more populated and palatable city than Asheville.
If you have a chance to make money, do it. But while festivals like this are ultimately a capitalist venture, shows like Sunn O))) showed me just how much conviction organizers have in their principle of exploring sound and art and tech and culture.
By booking this band, they didn’t convince people to buy many tickets.
By booking some acts like Numan and Odesza and GZA, they did. However, they gave Sunn O))) the main stage during the busiest time of the busiest night of Moogfest. They took a risk, and likely earned a few dozen noise complaints. But it paid off.
That’s what this festival is about. You get a wristband and four free days to explore. You’re confronted with the strange and loud and unpleasant, postmodernism and futurology and drone metal. It’s not about pleasing you or offering a comfortable environment, it’s about challenging your ideas of the future and technology, music and art. You might come for the bands you love or food you like, but you stay to explore outside of your safe zone.
That’s why I loved Moogfest, and that’s why I’ll be attending next year. I hope you will too.