Even in a genre as pointed iconoclastic as heavy music can be, Stephen O’Malley does not make “easy” music. As one of the founders of doom-drone experimentalists Sunn O))), he pushes the boundaries of what constitutes music. With his solo stuff, well, let’s just say he drives through those boundaries with the care and consideration of Dick Dastardly trying to win the Wacky Races, only with “insane noises made with a guitar while remaining stoic and in the shadows” instead of “wild scheme to crash everyone else’s car” as his Unique Selling Point.
Six things we learned while watching Stephen O’Malley in London…
1) Tonight’s “performance” (we’re loathe to call it a gig – more on that later) takes place in a church. Not a deconsecrated church that’s been converted into a venue, but a regular, practicing, really-real church. There’s probably some snarky comment to made regarding the fact that it’s probably fuller on this Friday night than it is for a regular Sunday service, but even typing out that framing device makes the punchline feel stale.
2) Before tonight’s main attraction, black metal trio Aluk Todolo take to the chancel (as opposed to the stage). Instrumental they may be, but there’s something oddly choral (and simultaneously perversely reverent) about how the French three-piece sound. With both their drumming and guitar lines taking it almost in turns to take the lead role within their long, sprawling but never boring compositions, their hour-long set is an appetiser to the power of St John on Bethnal Green’s gloomy atmosphere when the lights are set dim and the smoke machines are cranked up.
3) That Stephen O’Malley is performing in a church is not particularly surprising – working within his self-imposed sonic restrictions (more on that below), the environment he performs in is vital to how his work is received. This isn’t entirely about acoustics either, but the power that the natural evening gloom and a well-placed smoke machine can have when combined with a church’s ingrained cultural tidal pull. For a few brief moments at the start of his performance, the lighting rig hiccups and the entire church is illuminated. The fierce annoyance on O’Malley’s face as he cuts the air with his hand, indicating to the lighting controller to fix this immediately, is clear to see even from the back of the church. Thankfully the interruption is brief; extended exposure to bright, full lights would do more than just hamper O’Malley’s work. For him to perform in the full blaze of the lights would be a total sabotage.
4) O’Malley is definitely better described as an artist than he is as a musician. That’s not a slight on his talents, but merely an observation on his methods and his works. Tonight he performs alone, playing a continuous sound that St John’s natural acoustics seem to swell and thrum throughout the entire church. A projector fires a series of constantly warping images onto the series of amps arranged across the stage, with some kind of oscilloscope being used to link their distortion directly to the undulating sounds O’Malley is making.
5) If you took the note that opened his performance, and held it up to the note he closed it with, I’m sure the obvious differences would be immediately apparent, but an hour of the same humming, sometimes malevolent notes smoothes them out into one long continuous waveform of experience. The combination of sound, venue, and warping imagery creates a heady, hypnotic feeling; when you brush it off and take a second to look across the pews, every face seems transfixed on the display – the ritual – taking place in front of us.
The first five minutes of Stephen O’Malley’s performance…
6) Yes, tonight’s crowd was full of those converted to O’Malley’s way of thinking, and no, anybody not of that mindset would no doubt be driven to beyond boredom by an entire hour of his particular schtick, but for 60 minutes a man keeps an audience enraptured with sound. There’s no frenetic release of energy, no mosh pit of idiots smashing lumps out of each other, just the sound pulsing through pew after pew of people staring intently at a man and his machines. When the sound wails to a finish, the sense of space and relative quiet that rushes in to what had previously been filled with this thick, gut-shaking snarl provides such a euphoric rush that’s almost the equal of the psychic sonic pressure the sound before it wielded. what make Stephen O’Malley performances special. That’s why this wasn’t “just noise”.