Scott Walker + Sunn O))) – ‘Soused’

The veteran singer teams up with the Seattle drone metallers. The results are exciting, original and, in their own way, fun

For a 71-year-old man – an American by birth and a British citizen since 1970 – Scott Walker knows modern music. Ahead of the release of his last album, 2012’s ‘Bish Bosch’, he said: “I try and keep up with so much stuff, whether it’s Burial or a hit record off the radio”, and a key detail in the backstory to ‘Soused’ is that it was Walker’s idea to do a full album of his songs with Sunn O))), an extreme drone metal band from Seattle orbiting around two core members, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson (although it was they who first contacted him to see if he would sing on a track from their excellent 2009 album, ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’; he couldn’t).

Walker started out in the hugely successful ’60s pop group The Walker Brothers, went solo in 1967, initially making baroque, Jacques Brel-inspired, singer-songwriter albums (his first four are classics) and eventually embracing experimental music with his three most recent albums – ‘Tilt’ from 1995, 2006’s ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’. The common ground between him and Sunn O))) is an affection for the avant-garde, although Sunn O))) approach it from a different angle – equally fascinated by the texture of sound, but more in the field of ambience, repetition and ear-splitting, heart-palpitation-inducing volume. At one London gig in 2009, they played so loud a photographer’s camera exploded.

There are Walker fans who find his recent albums too far out there (on a track from ‘The Drift’ a musician is credited with “meat punching”). ‘Soused’ is more rooted and available, but still wildly original and exciting. In its own way, it’s also good fun. The first and shortest of the five tracks – the eight-minute-plus ‘Brando’ – begins with Walker’s signature, operatic baritone singing, “Ah, the wide Missouri!/Dwellers on the bluff/Across the wide Missouri/Never enough/No, never enough”, before halting, then up from some wretched bowel of the earth comes a deadly, rumbling Sunn O))) guitar riff – the monstrous backdrop against which Walker provides a strange, allegorical take on ‘Across The Wide Missouri’, a 1948 book about the frontier fur trade, turned into a 1951 western starring Clark Gable.

Sonic space becomes an essential element of the album (‘Bull’ is almost decadently cavernous), but in these feral and expansive pieces – produced by Walker along with regular collaborators Mark Warman and Peter Walsh – there’s fascinating, exhilarating detail. ‘Brando’ features the constant crack of a whip, and on the album’s best song, ‘Herod 2014’, which is hooked around a disturbing refrain of “She’s hidden her babies away”, a repeated saxophone wail is made to sound like a wounded bird’s last gasp of breath.

Walker anoraks will recognise that ‘Lullaby’ is a version of a track he wrote for German singer Ute Lemper in 1999, but it’s reimagined here as a closer full of menace, complete with exemplary last lyrics: “The most intimate personal choices/And requests/Central to your personal autonomy/Will be sung”. And yet for all of Walker’s poetic vividness and the massive breadth of Sunn O)))’s sound, ‘Soused’ manages to feel understated and ripe for listeners to engage with entirely on their own terms. It operates at the widest reaches of pop and metal – an album that, on paper, you might approach with caution (remembering, perhaps, Lou Reed and Metallica’s ‘Lulu’), but one that’s cleverly pitched, constantly engaging and, finally, triumphant. Play it very loud.

Phil Hebblethwaite

Details

Director: Scott Walker, Peter Walsh, Mark Warman
Record label: 4AD
Release date: 20 Oct, 2014