Altar is the name of an album that was released in 2006 on Southern Lord Records. It was the result of a full collaborative effort on the part of drone doom duo SUNN 0))) and noise-drone-doom-rock trio Boris, as well as numerous other guest artists. The eminent Dylan Carlson, founding member and creative force behind Earth, was among the more active participants, as he fully deserved. After all, without Earth 2, SUNN 0))) and even drone doom itself may never have existed. As it turned out, Altar stands tall even among landmark albums like that one, and acts as a primer for those unfamiliar to but interested in the genre, as well as an immersive and moving experience for initiates.
Etna lives up to its name; it's one of the only truly terrifying songs I've ever heard. This opening track starts off Altar by building up a dense, foggy base, and gives voice to the volcano it is named for. The pace is so slow, but always maintains a sense of travelling inexorably forwards. Cymbals quiver as drastically downtuned guitars melt together into a thick growl, and then a jungle of drums, curiously absent until now, punctures through. The rumble grows more powerful as the seconds pass, and a gong signals it into becoming a sheer, towering guitar riff. As the thundering continues, a shrill siren-like wail rings out, and the two opposing sounds battle for dominance and eventually kill each other off.
The album at this point takes a dive from the peak of Etna to the bottom of a colourless abyss. N.L.T. is a quiet exploration of the gong and the double bass. Atsuo of Boris weaves a shimmering metallic curtain around Bill Herzog and his bass as it drones on groggily. It is dark and dreamlike, like an old-growth forest two hours before sunrise. It is an environment, rather than a presence. After Etna, this seems like a brief, relaxing respite, but without breaking the mood. It does the job of setting up the next track, which is even more gentle, and next to a track like Etna would be absolutely jarring. The six tracks of the album are very different from one another if played out of order, but if heard as a whole the album flows quite nicely.
The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep) (7:38)
Jesse Sykes owns this song. Her slightly quavering vocals give The Sinking Belle a glossy, melancholy veil. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter is an alt-country band, but the style of The Sinking Belle is far from country. It is most reminiscent of Earth's later music, with twangy guitar drenched in thick reverberation, a distant piano, and achingly spare drums. The shuddering guitar chords. From the beginning of the album to the end of this song, there have been no real surprises. Transistions have been smooth. However, the end of The Sinking Belle is so airy that any other sound would seem harsh next to it. The solution was to make the transition as intense and abrupt as possible.
Akuma No Kuma (7:53)
Whining, buzzing electronic guitar effects and Joe Preston's vocoder vocals make Akuma No Kuma one of the stranger songs on this already-eclectic collection. It's a vibrant, pulsating mass that never goes anywhere; rather, it sits on a high throne, moaning, swelling, and shaking. Violent drumming attempts to shape the mess of noise into some Euclidean form and nearly succeeds, but the whole song is wild, perplexing, and too strong to control. The thrumming pounds out its own rhythm.
Fried Eagle Mind (9:47)
With drugged, ghostly whispers by Boris guitarist Wata, Fried Eagle Mind is another understated song, like the earlier N.L.T. but lacking the heavy bass. Instead, cloudy waves of chiming guitar notes drift and swirl aimlessly, and coupled with Wata's hypnotic vocals they are fully capable of putting the listener to sleep. Halfway through the song, a crackling becomes evident, and it flourishes and starts ripping the dream apart with jagged edges. Just before the point where the music would be drowned out, the song ends without warning.
Blood Swamp (14:46)
There isn't much to say about Blood Swamp. It's a drone doom piece, pure and simple. SUNN 0)))'s influence is obvious here; this is precisely the sort of music they are known for. It has a rhythm, but no drums, just a very slow, regular shifting in pitch. Guitars drift in and out of the soundscape, but for the most part the song remains the same throughout. By the end of its 15 minutes, the memories of the rest of Altar have been smothered by this hot, grey blanket. The album ends unremarkably, without climax or denouement.
...and don't forget:
Her Lips Were Wet with Venom (28:14)
Those six previous songs are the basic version of the album, but there is some extra material that goes with it. The Altar CD and LP both have a separate Prelude disc, titled "SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas" The Prelude is 28:14 minutes of ambient drone music, courtesy of Dylan Carlson. He hasn't recorded music like this since the early 90's, and it's great to hear Carlson return to his roots and blend in some of his newer style. The track is meant to be played before the rest of Altar, but works very well after Blood Swamp. It is left to the listener's preference.
There are also two bonus tracks, only available on the Japanese releases. The Japanese LP gets The Sinking Belle (White Sheep) and the CD has The Sinking Belle (Black Sheep). I've never heard these tracks, but I believe they are strictly ambient, like Her Lips Were Wet With Venom. Neither track creits Jessie Sykes, so her lovely voice is only present on the Blue Sheep version of The Sinking Belle (which is present on each of the Japanese releases in addition to the bonus versions).
The vinyl edition of Altar is beautiful. It's presented along with a book of full-colour photographs of the Boris and SUNN 0))) members dressed in black hooded cloaks and standing in a cornfield. The vinyl itself was pressed in many different colours, both opaque and clear. Many of these special pressings are sold out, though there is a fair number that are still available. As of this date, it is unknown if there will be another printing.
Altar - SUNN 0))) & Boris - 2006 - Southern Lord