Scott Walker and SunnO))), Soused, 4AD, CAD 3428CD (2014)
If some readers here don’t like falsetto singers, the recent Scott Walker + SunnO))) collaboration “Soused” won’t convert you over to their cause so you may skip this review now. Only those dead keen on hearing dark heavy cabaret music with high-pitched baritone vocals singing mad lyrics of sadomasochism, self-mutilation and acts of extreme violence (and who also ought to get a life but who insist on following me – I know not why though I do all I can to shake you off with the most gaaad-forsaken records) should continue.
The album starts off strongly with “Brando (Dwellers on the Bluff)”, distinguished by its sonorous bass riffs, occasional startled lead guitar stutter, an industrial rhythm, lashing bullwhips, tribal whistles and Walker’s operatic vocal sounding off on self-abasement and punishment. The combination of Walker’s singing and the drone churn of Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars with the bullwhips and other sound effects are unsettling and create a dark tortured atmosphere in which the potential for all kinds of human perversity no matter how extreme becomes realistic. Somehow the horrors implied in second track “Herod 2014” don’t seem out of place at all in spite of the shrill saxophone cries: the double drone doom guitar juggernaut sails on unperturbed and Walker sounds more pensive than horrified at the possible meanings implied in the constant repetition of “She’s hidden her babies away”. Mechanical rhythms and scraping noises lend the track a strong industrial feel and you wonder whether, if taken, the babies might be better off dead than kept alive as slaves toiling in an inhuman police-state technopolis.
Perhaps the oddest and most puzzling song lyrically is “Fetish”, a kind of love song to the pleasures as well as the pains of self-torture that hints at a fragile self-identity and a failure to connect with other humans, due perhaps to a history of being abused. The track is probably the most experimental in structure, at times close to freeform jazz in the way percussion and trumpets are deployed to express alarm and explosive emotion. Final track “Lullaby” looks and sounds like music composed for an arcane ritual: the Sunn axes are quietly menacing while Walker’s voice soars to the highest points close to the heavens and dives down to levels of close intimacy, longing and childlike gibberish.
In all tracks there is a dark clear atmosphere which in itself can be sinister and almost threatening. One is reminded of tales of old churches built over pagan temples in which human sacrifices are still performed in secret. There is a clear sense that the lyrics were written in such a way as to seem a smokescreen for vile and extreme behaviours that is hinted at.
Although the songs are good in themselves, they are basically poems set to music and as a quintet they’re too even and the entire album reaches a plateau quickly and stays on that level for most of its duration. All the emotion and musical intensity are in Walker’s singing and troubled lyrics; the Sunn men provide a mostly monotonous and repetitive minimalist foundation for Walker and several guest musicians (guitarist and keyboard player Tos Nieuwenhuizen prominent among them) to bounce off. There’s not much sustained interaction between Walker and SunnO))) in the songs and any interaction between singer and music usually involves the guest players. There are no great emotional highs and lows musically though for most people Walker’s singing and lyrics alone will be complex and intense enough. Walker himself probably breaks no new ground with his singing. I think Anderson and O’Malley probably should have been a bit less respectful of Walker and his current reputation as an avant-garde balladeer, and tried to push him to the extremes of his vocal range!
While not quite a masterpiece for both Walker and SunnO))), the deep rumbling and rhythmic music does generate a dark ambience and an intense feeling of ritual that sit well with the disturbing lyrical material.