A good joke always reveals a particular truth about its object, whether in white or black form. The title of this album is a running joke in the band’s milieu, one that spans from simply going to exercise all the way to the concept of selling out. What it does, in its silly reversal of (death) metal’s fierce commitment to the void as absolute destruction, is find in the absence of meaning not a furious voluntarism but, simply put, a cosmic, sometimes mirthless, sometimes mirthful, laughter. In the mythologized images of nature it does not find the totality that black metal once sought – a sublime power of abjection – nor does it emphasize the patriarchal warrior stances of modernized Nordic gods; it finds, instead, a classicist fusion of beauty and the sublime, the path through which the god Loki transforms into a mare and gives birth to an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, which would then serve Odin as transport across the universe. It is not the Norse tradition of heroes and death, but that of tricksters and life.
The first track, “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths”, is introduced by the horse’s phantasmal gallop, followed by one of the band’s signature massive, space-occupying riffs. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s voice adds a textural quality that highlights the soft edges of these riffs, the ways in which they’re always in escape, always flowing outwards, their volume not a function of oppression but of letting go, the grand exhalation of a laughter that comes to sweep away the remnants of a consciousness fixed upon the world of meaning. The poetry she recites comes from the monarch of Texcoco, called Nezahualcóyotl, and a mystic called Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, both Mexica poets of the 15th century for whom the facts of life, the very framework of existence, was adorned with the splendor of death. For both, but particularly for Ayocuan, existence was the “region of the fleeting moment”, its beauty tainted and ignored by continual attempts to grasp it, to control it, the vain desire to imprint upon it a will and a thought the ultimate folly. The “giver of life” which so fascinated Ayocuan will enter your house not through deeds and glory, but through the music of poetry and the paintings on your walls, which is to say through the ephemeral joys of living, forever in escape, passing away with every second. As the organ drone of “Troubled Air” emerges from this fleeting soundscape, the softness of the first track grows and shifts like the album’s cover art, the jagged growl of piercing riffs the aggression of the wind, the uncertainty of a mist that parts for no one. Laughter itself disrupts the air, and in its release of energy comes to fill the void around us with a vibration that is, too, forever in escape.
The last two tracks, “Aurora” and “Novae”, swing back into the natural imagery of sublime dimensions, for which Loki and the “giver of life” playfully burst forth as akin figures that birth something monstrous, something fragmentary, something that does not make sense and is yet beautiful: existence, a joke in itself. The drones in “Aurora” feel wider, even softer than those of the first half of the album, their flow an elation through which the sky seems to fall apart, its lights a record of another kind of energy release, another death that fills the abyss with blooming life. “Novae”, in contrast, goes back to the hardened, identifiably metal riffs with which Sunn O))) once made its reputation, the violence of this cosmic expiration a joyful reminder of the terror and the incontrollable elements of a laughter that has no end, its ambiguity towards meaninglessness a source of comfort as much as of misery. Half-way through, Guðnadóttir’s cello overcomes the guitar drones with some of its own, transforming the volume of the piece into something that does not fill every nook and cranny with sound; once the explosions have passed, there is only peace, a stillness that belongs to the final settling of cosmic dust. Just as it seems that we have entered death’s domain, however, the guitars flare up again, blowing up that dust to life, to cackling its way into the harsh, fragmentary, beautiful noise of movement.
Life is at the heart of metal, a beauty that many a metalhead would reject – too sensitive, too close to the feeling of giving birth. But it is also a sublimity that for all their romantic talk of nature, probably many other metalheads would reject as well – too wondrous, too close to the self-dissolution of being in love with the divine, as Ayocuan was. Metal, conceived this way, is made for us to admire the flowers and the birds, for us to dwell in the comfort of a friend’s embrace, for us to share the poetry of the sunlight passing, pretty much like the Mexica did (who, lest we forget, sacrificed humans to preserve life). To keep treading down this path could mean that the joke might be on me, but it would seem that in fact it’s on all of us who would describe ourselves as being alive. In short: thanks, Sunn O))), for all the laughs. (David Murrieta Flores)