Release Date: Mar 19, 2013
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Heavy Metal, Soundtracks, Stage & Screen, Doom Metal, Cast Recordings, Original Score, Post-Metal
With Earth‘s Dylan Carlson exploring slightly more gentle pastures and hobnobbing with the faeries, it’s perhaps no surprise to find Sunn O)))‘s Stephen O’Malley turning his hand to something equally introspective and on occasion – whisper it – quiet. Ensemble Pearl is a collective that not only features O’Malley, but also talents from the likes of Ghost (not the zombie cleric ones), Boris, and The Sweet Hereafter in the able bodies of Bill Herzog, Atuso, and Michio Kurihara. This however is not music for the body as such; there’s something far more elemental and intangible going on during these six songs.
On paper, Ensemble Pearl isn’t supposed to sound quite so subdued: The new quartet is led by Stephen O’Malley, the stage-right guitarist in thunderous hooded drone giants Sunn O))). Though they’ve explored a range of intricate ideas and dynamic approaches during the last 13 years, they’re perhaps best known for extreme volume, with tidal riffs powered by an arsenal of linebacker-sized amplifiers. In Ensemble Pearl, O’Malley is accompanied by Bill Herzog, the former bassist in Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, and the two flashiest members of Japanese metal pillagers Boris-- Atsuo, the bare-chested and gong-banging drummer shouting into the microphone attached to his face, and longtime collaborator Michio Kurihara, a guitarist whose playing seems to thrive partially on sonic showmanship.
If Godspeed You! Black Emperor captured the emotional devastation of the end times, Sunn O))) captured the primal, earth-rending fury. Godspeed made doomsday visions beautiful, but Sunn O))) reminded us how terrifying they ought to be. As one-half of the hooded doom metal pioneers, Stephen O’Malley’s thunderous guitar had a lot to do with this; menacing and tar-black, his tones lent Sunn O))) a sense of dread that came on like a nightmare and only left long after your ears stopped ringing.
“Slowness is beauty,” claimed poet Laurence Binyon, whose words found their way into Ezra Pound’s late Cantos. But slowness presents an interesting problem for music: how do you make something that evolves slowly without losing the listener’s attention? John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible) doesn’t specify much about its tempo, but the Halberstadt performance of the piece is scheduled to last 639 years. The most attended dates of the performance are on the chord changes.
Stephen O’Malley is a drone maestro if such a thing exists. If it doesn’t, it should. As half the nucleus that comprises the amplified ceremony of Sunn O))), O’Malley, behind his hood and drooping monkish garb, pushes endless decibels from his guitar, realizing the band’s credo of maximum volume yielding the same level of results.
Ensemble Pearl came together to record material that Sunn 0)))'s Stephen O'Malley had written for the production of director and choreographer Giesele Vienne's This Is How You Will Disappear, with text by poet and novelist Dennis Cooper and other serial music by DACM's Peter Rehberg (not represented here). The band O'Malley assembled for this recording includes Michio Kurihara of Ghost, Boris drummer Atsuo, and William Herzog from Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, with participation from string players Eyvind Kang and Timba Harris. Given its slow, unraveling pace and its atmospheric feel, it's tempting to assume that Ensemble Pearl are under the influence umbrella of post-Hex Earth.
Bearing in mind their personnel has been assembled from members of drone-doom leviathans Sunn O))) and Boris, Ensemble Pearl have credibility on their side even before they strike their first monolithic chord. This, of course, can cut two ways. It means their loyal fanbase will welcome them, but will those staunch supporters be rewarded with the sort of forbidding majesty that the individual members of this leftfield supergroup are capable of conjuring while occupied by their day jobs? The six looming, elemental set pieces contained within Ensemble Pearl’s self-titled debut fail to conclusively answer that question.
Something ominous this way comes, oozing sludge nearing your doorstep in the form of the Drag City released debut album from Ensemble Pearl. Featuring present and former members of Sunn O))) and Boris, the Ensemble’s self-titled LP overwhelms with massive creep factor rather than the pummeling guitar noise that Stephen O’Malley and Atsuo’s better established acts are known for. That said, we’re just talking about the soundtrack to a different type of horror flick, a slow-building anxiety attack that makes the skin crawl, wondering what might pop out of the mist.
No wonder, as a period of musical innovation morphs into an era of refinement and recontextualisation, that a refined sense of context nudges ever closer to pole position on the starting grid of critical tools favoured by some writers. Take the reaction to Swedish electronic duo The Knife's new album - the militantly self-explanatory Shaking The Habitual - for example. And most notably take the effervescent and fountainous reaction to Shaking The Habitual by Tiny Mix Tapes writer Birkut who says the album is a "an aural clusterfuck of liberated curiosity and compromise".