Scott Walker + Sunn O)))- Soused

By Aaditya Chandrasekar

Published on Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When I first heard that Scott Walker and Sunn O))) were collaborating, I was unsure of what to expect. Both artists have a predilection for extremes, which they pursue in unique ways. With each release, Walker drives listeners deeper into his world of cerebral, oblique trains of thought, while Sunn O))), comprised of guitarists Greg Anderson, Stephen O’Malle, have taken a visceral approach that appeals more to the primitive brainstem. With Soused, these artists have proved that it is possible to have a collaboration that can join such distinct personalities successfully.

Spread across five tracks, the atmosphere of Soused strikes me as bleak, but despite this, many other emotions come through, with some moments of the record being simply sublime. The record kicks off with one such moment in the opener, Brando – a track inspired by actor Marlon Brando’s tendency for getting beat up on screen. Backed by a small ensemble, including a shimmering synth from Mark Warman and guitar leads played by Sunn O))) auxiliary guitarist Tos Nieuwenhuizen, Walker croons about the Missouri River and Omaha, where Brando was born, in an over-the-top manner that reminds me of a washed up singer fantasizing about the glory days. Just as quickly as they entered, the instruments fade away, giving the much needed space for Sunn O))) to make their entry, signaling a verse that keeps to the time of Peter Gamble’s bull whips before hitting a climax where Walker lists instances where Brando took a beating. Before we know it, we return to Walker’s musings on the Missouri River before ending with a reprise of Sunn O)))’s droning guitars. The next track, Bull, is probably the closest thing to a single that this album has. After a brief moment of crackling fuzz, the track explodes into a grinding refrain centered around the phrase “bump the beaky”. The verse that follows somehow manages to be simultaneously intense and goofy with what sounds like a schizophrenic conversation with oneself, accompanied by awkward sounds and menacing percussion. As the song progresses, Sunn O)))’s drone is given a little more room to hypnotize the listeners – first during the bridge where Walker shows off his ability to speak in latin, and later, beneath a barely audible phone call between a boy and a girl. The record continues with Herod 2014, Scott Walker’s 12 minute take on the Massacre of the Innocents, and my personal highlight for this record. Andy Findon’s free-jazzy sax and the moaning keyboard effects create an ancient, dinosaur-ish vibe that, with the addition of the synths and Sunn O)))’s guitars, induces a sense of paranoia, which the characters in the story seem to share. What I particularly like about this track is how it initially is told in third person, as if someone is telling a horror story, and how this wall is broken when Walker gently sings “Ho, Ho, watenay, I’m closing in, I’m closing in”. Every time I hear this section, I get this haunting image of a predator not only finding his prey, but also coaxing it to him with a lullaby (the liner notes state that Ho Ho Watenay is a traditional Ojibwa Indian lullaby). Fetish, the next track, is the odd-one-out for this album, and is the closest in style to Bish Bosch. By this, I mean that the music is significantly more dependent on the lyrics here, where each phrase uttered by the singer is mirrored by the instruments, like a demented version of Frank Zappa’s backing band on tracks such as Cosmik Debris. The last track of the album, Lullaby, originally written for Ute Lemper’s 2000 release Punishing Kiss. According to Lemper, this song was about “assisted suicide and the very dark sounds and vibrations that apparently you hear when you die.” The latter aspect is clearly covered by Sunn O))). This song is also the closest this album gets to material reminiscent of the earlier Scott Walker crooner tracks, but the stark textures and the freaky chorus ensures that we don’t get too nostalgic. The drum programming also adds a hint of a Nine Inch Nails styled industrial feel to the track, closing the album with the feeling that we have travelled thousands of years in 48 minutes.

The first thing I noticed about this album was that in order to maintain a solid vision, one of the two parties had to take the back seat. In this case, it was Sunn O))). Though I have only listened to Monoliths and Dimensions, it is apparent that Sunn O))) is capable of many more textures then the ones used in Soused. However, that they limited themselves to only a couple of these textures is, I think in this case, a good thing. Since Scott Walker wrote the concepts and much of the music in the record beforehand, I feel confident in saying that this is more or less a Scott Walker record. That being said, Sunn O))) plays an integral role as a part of the sound pallet that I have been dying to hear Walker use. Walker’s backing band has incorporated everything from Danelectro guitars and drum kit to meat punching and rams horns. However, none of the textures have the character of Sunn O)))’s guitars, which while reportedly having shaken up the recording studio, were turned down a little on the record, creating a sound that simultaneously is menacing and purring. This is the sort of dynamic that keeps me listening to Walker’s music. Also, while the notion that Sunn O))) did not take up as much of the spotlight on this record may sound like a bad thing, I am glad it happened. Each of these artists has a strong history of releases that have helped them carve out unique identities. By having one artist perform in service of the other, the record is much more refined, as opposed to being a mishmash of these personalities.

That aside, the performances on the record are, as always with Scott Walker, top notch. In addition to the principle members of Sunn O))), Tos Nieuwenhuizen has contributed tidbits of lead guitar to the record, that are at times reminiscent of the leads from Bish Bosch. This record also features regulars of Walker’s musical posse, including trumpeter Guy Barker, drummer Ian Thomas and keyboardist Mark Warman, as well as professional bullwhip performer Peter Gamble and woodwind performer Andy Findon who played saxophone on Herod 2014. With Peter Walsh once again taking on production, sound engineering and other miscellaneous tasks, all of the musicians are able to cut through the mix without being obnoxious. Additionally, the production of this record is, to my ears, excellent. The quality of sound is fairly lush for the most part, while the quiet moments are devoid of any tape hiss, creating a stark, uncomfortable atmosphere.

All in all, this record is a substantial effort put forth by Scott Walker and Sunn O))), and was difficult for me to review since it has much more depth than I can fit in a couple pages. That being said, it is certainly not for everyone, and I can see how some fans of Sunn O))) may be discouraged by how much of the record is populated by Walker’s singing. However, I do think that fans of Walker’s recent work as well as listeners who admire compositions that exude a unique character will greatly enjoy this release. Soused has proven that Sunn O))) is growing rapidly as a band and that Scott Walker has certainly not run out of ideas. While I eagerly anticipate hearing new music from both artists, I am more than happy to give Soused many more spins.

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