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Friday, February 7, 2020

Sunn Trio – Electric Esoterica (2182 Recording Company, 2020*) ****½

By Phil Stringer

The things we do for reviewing. I have just immersed myself in the Best of Duane Eddy and conducted a thought experiment: what if Duane Eddy had taken a different turn, into improvised music?

During the last months, I have had an immersive Sunn Trio experience. I took a risk on buying Fayrus (Unrock), last year’s release, on the basis of an Unrock newsletter from Michael Stahl. It was a worthwhile risk; it is a tremendous album. I learnt that Sunn Trio is a fluctuating group of musicians with guitarist Joel Robinson a constant. And that they are Arizona based. I listened to that album, a performance with a different line up at London’s Café Oto in October, and now, as I listen to this album, Electric Esoterica, trying to escape a head full of categories suggested by what I read. Is Joel Robinson like Sonny Sharrock? Maybe, at times, like Sharrock’s opening section of ‘whatthefuckdoyuwant 4’ and ‘5’, before Brotzmann pitches in. But Robinson’s gorgeous, deep, reverb, it must be an oblique homage to Duane Eddy, who I then discover lives in Arizona. Surrounded by different musicians, what could Eddy’s ‘Guitar on my Mind’, ‘Eve of Destruction’ or ‘Lonesome Road’ sound like?

Listening to Sunn Trio, like a lot of what I listen to and gets reviewed on this blog, it’s in categories until the categories snap. Sunn Trio is distinctly Sunn Trio.
On Electric Esoterica, it’s the same band as Café Oto, Paul Borman (bass), Andrew Flores (drums) join Joel Robinson. On the album they play a wider range of instruments and Robinson contributes shortwave and field recordings. Partly because of this and because I’m listening to the album repeatedly at home, it brings richer, deeper feelings and images on top of the raw, sonic burst of the gig.

I close my eyes. Side A begins with effects, effects, effects….wild, reverb guitar and Borman and Flores lay down a deep, underlying rhythm as the track unfolds and then ebbs into the next track. I’m in a souk, North African trance rhythms, leading the way. Then, an extended guitar opening, echoing somewhere in that souk as the rhythm insistently propels me down narrow, twisting lanes and then into a crowded square where the guitar fills that square. Vaguely, is it Marrakech? Track 4, a rest, in an antechamber, close to the souk, with a crescendo of percussion, bells and gongs and then, the remainder of the side, I’m back outside, moving quickly away from the crowds, along a highway, out of the city, through valleys with guitar bouncing back, a repetitive drone into feedback fade and heading towards mountains.

Side B, first off, a running bass, still in open country, searching, probing, ever vigilant. Night falls, and the next track, I’m in a chamber, a large hall, back in the city, a wash of guitar and rhythm, a distance chanting or calling. Then, a call to embrace the dance that follows, a dance with percussion, bass, warm fuzz of guitar tones. Track 4, echoing gongs, I have left the dance, into an antechamber, distant sounds of voices, echoing through chambers, fading, fading into a brief ecstatic free for all, a static interruption. Then, finally, an escape from what was verging into an uneasy kind of ecstasy. My pulse is racing, my heart is pounding, my head is swimming with sound. Where have I ended up? Not far from the souk, in that antechamber again, drums, percussion, bass, swirling guitar, distorted voice, repetitive, persistent, trance. Somewhere, a vision is created.

I open my eyes. There are passages when I have felt on edge but now, overwhelmingly, I feel a joyous burst of energy, spilling into me and back out. I think Sunn Trio are making great, vibrant music. They work together, listening, responding, it is dynamic. This album is every bit as tremendous as Fayrus. And, I have told anyone that’s interested that this is music that it will wrap you up and carry you away. It does.

(*I bought a test pressing of this album at Café Oto. It is the best presented test pressing I have come across with a printed sleeve and insert. It is due for release, in the sleeve pictured, on February 21, and will be available on Bandcamp).