A Night of Extremes At David Byrne’s Meltdown Festival

  • Words: Spindle Team
  • Photography: Maria Jefferis

Two days deep into this year’s David Byrne-curated Meltdown Festival and already standards and sound-levels have been hoisted high. Tonight’s bill pairs drone/metal pioneers Sunn O))) with Tibetan throat-singing practitioners Phurpa and promises an experience unlike any other unfolding in the city tonight.

First up are Phurpa, a Russian-based collective replicating and preserving the sonic practices of the Bon- one of Tibet’s oldest religious sects. The trio emerge on stage and walk slowly towards an assortment of traditional metal instruments, faces obscured by hanging black cloth, and sit cross-legged in position. The Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall is transformed into some ritualistic hallucination as guttural calls and billowing smoke echos off the walls and whirls around perplexed faces n the crowd.

As engrossing and fascinating as the experience is you get the feeling that this kind of deeply meditative performance is not best suited to the grand, stereo-strewn performance hall of a major city and would be most enthralling in an intimate environment, detached from the neon glow of EXIT signs and expensive pints.

After a wholly unique and mesmerising performance Phurpa finish up and walk silently off-stage, leaving a 20 minute break between us and the main act.

Sunn O))) are a rare sight in the flesh, their absence between appearances weaving tall tales of bleeding eardrums and overworked amps catching alight like touchpaper. Their last album Monoliths and Dimensions was met with critical acclaim and found its way onto many of the end-of-year lists in 2009, but even that was six years ago now.

Smoke layers the room as though shot from commercial jet engines, while cloaked figures appear and don their instruments as slowly as possible. From the very first, elongated note, everything but noise and rattling skeletons dissolve from the hall. The eruption of sound is so thrillingly loud and overwhelming that identifying a specific track is made difficult. It’s all best enjoyed as an experience of measured, sonic immersion. Over 90 minutes of stretched-out shrieks and hammer-blow tones the show becomes merely a vessel for throbbing ears and attempts to distinguish chord progressions and song structure- all part of the fun though right?

Vocalist Attila Csihar’s performance ranges from conjuring contorted screams to stalking the stage in a clock studded with shards of mirrors reflecting blue lasers. For those new to Sunn O))) this is an endurance race through indistinguishable walls of noise- make of that what you will, that’s a perfect night out for some. For the rest it’s a chance to witness heroes of the genre; influential boundary pushers and atmosphere creators. Regardless of the patience and earplugs necessary, tonight is a pacemaker-rattling experience of goliath proportions.