What might one expect from Soused, a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O)))? That all depends, I guess, on what one knows of either of those artists.
Some, if they know of Scott Walker at all, know of him as the chiselled-cheeked bassist and baritone voiced singer of ‘60s heartthrobs The Walker Brothers, or some of his baroque-pop solo albums. People who only know of Scott Walker’s past musical career probably have never heard of Seattle drone-metal band Sunn 0))).
Others, however, will know that since then Walker’s moved on his own path. Through an idiosyncratic exploration of sonic exploration and avant-garde noise, to return from relative obscurity to being an iconic figure in cult music. If you don’t know of his musical journey, then take some time and watch 30th Century Man on YouTube – it’s fascinating stuff. But, until then, know that Walker’s most recent solo album, Bish Bosch, was critically acclaimed but also at times derided for being a chaotic, shocking soup of noise, psychotic nursery rhymes, found-sound rhythms, and vocals of great pathos and utter ridiculousness.
Sunn O))) are likely to be at least known to, and likely well-enjoyed, by people who also find themselves drawn to Scott Walker’s contemporary musical expressionism. This band, based around the core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, have pummelled their way with massive walls of sound and droning guitars to be held in the highest esteem amongst those who enjoy droning, ambient, harsh-yet-gorgeous metal.
Together, this means a collaboration between Walker and Sunn O))) is surely going to be something unusual. But how unusual? Will Soused fall towards the baroque, looped-rhythm and sometime pomposity of Walker or towards the wall-of-noise drone and fade of Sunn O)))?
The first clue comes on the album’s cover; and black-and-gray with a splash of expressionist white, with the artists’ names on the upper right corner. It’s not “Sunn O))) with Scott Walker”. It’s “scott walker + sunn O)))”, lower case, striking, but Walker’s name clearly first. Within, that all the tracks are written by Walker further reinforce that this is a Scott Walker album with Sunn O))) along to provide their own musical flavour to his avant-garde epics.
But, turn the CD album (yes, CD, it’s how I still buy a lot of music, on mail order as directly from the artists as I can) and there, under the album’s title and track listing is a small-font but all-caps instruction: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YEILDS MAXIMUM RESULTS”. That’d be the modus operandi of Sunn O))), if ever there would be one.
This credo; mixing the from sublime-to-ridiculous-and-back-again of Walker’s percussive found-sound loops and surreal, disturbing baritone-barked vocals with huge walls of droning guitars from Anderson and O’Malley is clearly communicated within the album’s centrepiece, ‘Bull’. Beginning with an ominous drone, it soon expands with a metallic crashing beat clanging behind roaring, screaming guitars crashing into a low-tone drone, while Walker barks nonsensical words “fire-ant necklace, bump the beaky, bilaut-besotted, bump the beaky, bump the beaky!”
Then, when Walker falls silent, the tracks throbs and moans with Sunn O)))’s guitars droning, looming, menacing beneath, before the metallic backdrop and jerking, ragged guitar returns. It’s intense, somewhat scary and, frankly, a bit silly. But, with the lights low and the stereo loud (or on a good pair of headphones) it’s almost five minutes of the most compelling noise I’ve heard this year that wasn’t on Swans To Be Kind.
But it’s not over, because just over half-way through ‘Bull’s nine-minute length, Walker’s voice disappears and we’re left with a huge, ominous drone of moog and guitar, over which creeps in a robotic, unsettling clanging sound. As subtly the guitar shift and whine around the constantly held moog note, we know we’re in Sunn O))) territory here, little notes of feedback hinting at a crescendo that doesn’t – quite – come.
The listener is almost expecting Walker to return at any moment with his baritone voice yelping some more surreal profundity to bring the track to a close, but with ‘Bull’ he stays clear, allowing the tracks to drone on, enigmatically, threateningly, until eventually it fades. But elsewhere on Soused, Walker’s the driving force, his combination of near-operatic vocals and bizarre repeated phrases the core of his songs, under which Sunn O))) plays a supporting role, providing a bottom end and edge that unsettles as much as it binds together the Walker’s songs.
Comparing Soused with the previous releases of both artists, you can sense that Walker being the songwriter has returned shape to the mostly shapeless noise that Sunn O))) released on Terrestrials (also a collaboration, with Norwegian experimentalists Ulver), while Sunn O))) adds a more constant bottom-end and ominous drone to what Walker did on Bish Bosch, perhaps pulling him back from that albums long-periods of silence punctuated by nearly ludicrous percussive effects.
But it is, without a doubt, a Scott Walker album, and one’s tolerance for Soused will depend not just on one’s tolerance for avant-garde noise but also for Walker’s playfulness and cruelty, his joy of contrasting his pretty voice with ugly, mechanical sounds.
Much as I hate to say it, there’s no denying that Soused is very post-modern, not just post-rock, but post-modern – coming back to noise and avant-garde music with a knowledge and awareness that is both ridiculous yet compelling. And, if you can make it through the album’s drones and yelps, long, looming near-silences and sudden eruptions of cacophony, you’ll finally get to ‘Lullaby’, the last of the album’s five long tracks.
With ‘Lullaby’ Walker is making clear that he’s aware of the knowingness of it all, the deliberate deconstruction of rock music while still trying to create something that will be understandable and sale-able to a public. With a nod to William Byrd, over a soundscape of drones, he declares “the most intimate personal choices and requests, central to your personal dignity will be sung.”
“Why don’t minstrels go from house to house, howling songs the way they used to?” he asks. Providing, of course, his own answer by this album, this collaboration, this noise. Modern music, he seems to be saying, has fragmented. With ‘Lullaby’ he and Sunn O))) send their assistant amongst the crowd, cap in hand, to seek income and approval, in a world where the most intimate and personal music seems to be rejected, while the most impersonal is that which does the most well.
‘Lullaby’ seemingly asks the question, too, of why Walker’s become what he’s become, from heartthrob crooner to enigmatic, nearly-unknown purveyor of noise and discord. It doesn’t propose an answer, beyond its own existence – that when an artist tries to make music for themselves and their muse, sometimes no one wants to hear. “His cap will be empty”, he sings, knowing full well that if his cap is empty, it’s by the musical choices he and Sunn O))) have made and will make to continue producing the music that compels them.
There’s a lot going on here, in Soused. But “easy-listening” it isn’t. Enter with caution, with open ears, and listen.
Beer match: Yeah, you’re not going to want to fuck around with this one. You’re going to want to ponder this album with a dark ale, a complex ale, strong enough to last the entire time so you won’t have to get out of your seat. Something a bit confronting, a beer that many won’t like but those who do, love. So, if you can get it, pour yourself a ‘Red Rocks Reserve’ by Garage Project. This is nominally a strong, dark, hoppy red ale. But it’s flash-boiled over volcanic red rocks, creating a sticky, toffee-like character that you’ll either love or hate. It forces you to slow down and savour, however, which is exactly what you need to do with this album.