Sunn O))) and Nurse with Wound at Koko, 12 June 2012

Sunn 0))) Photo: Valerio Berdini, http://liveon35mm.com/

Now well into their 30th year, Steven Stapleton’s Nurse with Wound (NWW) has endured in gloriously idiosyncratic style well beyond the limelight. They perform only rarely, so this one-off double-header with Sunn O))) was highly anticipated.

The association of NWW with the American purveyors of doom drone was cemented with their reinterpretation of Sunn O)))’s album ØØ Void under the title The Iron Soul of Nothing; otherwise, the two bands have precious little in common, and I doubt that most of the 1400-strong capacity audience at Koko knew who NWW were; yet they gave them a respectful audition.

NWW played hemmed in by Sunn O)))’s crescent wall of amplifier stacks and their own table of electronic sound sources. Stapleton, stage right, focused on tabletop guitar while Colin Potter (who played solo a few days earlier at Cafe Oto, in a showcase for Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint), marshaled the mix of inputs from sundry tone generators and electric bass courtesy of James Blackshaw (primarily known as an acoustic guitarist).

Two lengthy passages – an early sequence of provisional textural experimentation and a later climax – were narrated by a character well described in a tweet from @robinrimbaud (Scanner) as a “sub David Lynchian cabaret crooner”. In between appearances by this pasty-faced dandy, abrupt tempo switches in NWW’s occasionally beat-driven composition were almost comically jarring, with the group channeling sometime peers Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and even a hint of Ministry. Everyone picked up a guitar at some point, and lengthy stretches of the unbroken performance were enlivened by fluid if surprisingly conventional guitar soloing.

In truth, in what was a welcome and satisfying, but ultimately rather underwhelming performance NWW sounded rather dated. In (I assume) calibrating their set for an audience of Sunn worshippers they threw down no real challenges.

Headliners Sunn O))) took the stage as always, cloaked in thick, obfuscatory sworls of dry ice, with Moog player Thomas Nieuwenhuizen only gradually emerging from the spot-flooded mists behind Greg Anderson (Les Paul bass) and Stephen O’Malley (Travis Bean guitar).

Whereas previous Sunn O))) shows I’ve witnessed were built on grinding layers of steadily accumulated twin guitar riffage, their latest is more assiduously layered. The unsettling tonality of Nieuwenhuizen’s Moog effectively defines the mood, leaving O’Malley free to explore more intricate textures while Anderson (to simplify) stokes the riff bank. When he initially emerged from the murk, Attila Csihar was a portentously mute presence, but at length his baleful and minatory but remarkably nuanced incantations became the focal point of Sunn O)))’s performance.

Sunn O))) achieved a significant advance with their last studio work, Monoliths and Dimensions, and it always seemed unlikely that they could replicate its sedulous orchestration with a tour band. In this set they sublimated their playing to the strengths of their guests, and married the blueprint of Monolith’s opening track, “Aghartha” with the rawer power of the foundational, stripped-down Grimm Robe sound, with ferociously effective results.

The group’s live sound has a visceral quality, their waves of low-end emanations experienced as much as bodily stimulus as aurally, and for all its refinement and theatricality (Anderson, as usual, is the only one to let his cowl slip), the Sunn O))) live experience remains as brutally effective as ever. The band’s occasional Wolf Eyes-style raised-fist salutes correspond to a similarly comparable pummeling intensity and punker attitude. Thankfully, the sound was excellent, with Koko’s high-spec (albeit overtaxed) in-house PA channeling the punishing reverb clearly thanks (I assume) to the sterling work of Randall Dunn at the desk.

This review is featured as a guest post on The Liminal, with additional photography by Valerio Berdini.

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