Originally published in Arthur No. 25 (Winter 2006)
White Magic: Meanwhile, outside the city gates…
Black Hole White Magic
By Chris Ziegler
Sunn O))) & Boris
Dat Rosa Mel Apibus
I had Altar complete in my head before I ever heard it: Sunn O))) and Boris together to make the heaviest thing ever, an album that would burst cochlear membranes and the confines of three-dimensional spacetime. Modern music’s two most immovable objects: what would happen when they met? Maybe nothing—in fact, hopefully nothing, and Altar would be pure void, a subatomic drone that would go beyond Sunn O))) and Earth and Flood to the low slow B-flat hum NASA heard coming from a black hole around the same time Sunn O)))’s White 1 came out. “A million billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear!” NASA said, complete with exclamation point. That was the true sound of the universe, and if any humans could play along, well, here they were: two bands with discographies so colossal that you couldn’t deploy anything less than three syllables per adjective without feeling cheap and weak. (Cyclopean? Titanic? Hephaestean?) NASA called this new science “black hole acoustics” and that was the best explanation yet—better than the New York Times’ cutesy ‘heady metal,’ anyway.
But Altar is the un-heaviest. Six or seven minutes into opener “Etna” (played in the spirit of the volcano that will devour Sicily) presents the riff-vs.-drone grappling match the collaboration demanded, and it is satisfactorily hephaestean. Last year’s Black One and Pink anticipate these moments—Pink’s intro “Parting” especially, though Boris drummer Atsuo rarely pushes a straight 4/4 rock beat, instead mating drums to drone with a rush/recede dynamic that must have cheered the Coltrane students in Sunn O))). Black hole acoustics is science for space and gravity and not amplifier athleticism, though, so credit to Boris and Sunn O))) for Altar’s sidewise moves. Sunn O))) provokes orgasm and Boris melts minds—we know that and so do they, so let’s improv something else.
“Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” is probably the songiest thing to ever bear a Sunn O))) stamp; Internet drones are straight-facedly calling it “folk pop” and while that’s a bit broad, it’s … understandable. Earth’s Hex had passages of twilight-zone quiet and “Sinking Belle” collects them together: reverbed piano that blooms and dissolves like ink into water with Jesse Sykes (singer from Seattle’s Sweet Hereafter) sounding like Nico at her frowniest, or actually sounding a lot like Sybille Baier, another dissipated ‘60s teuton-chanteuse. After that is “Akuma No Kuma,” an all-synth-no-guitar track (with Joe Preston growling through a vocoder) that fits the fire-and-fog Blade Runner opening, and after that the desolate “Fried Eagle Mind,” a wave of tube tone washing over Boris guitarist Wata’s ghost vocals. “Blood Swamp” has to float back home: rumble finally turns to roar as Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil gets a guitar to sound like something that breathes mud—or blood?—to stay alive. A hephaestean finale, sure, but not the truncated concussion both bands favor. There is clear-to-cloudy precedent for everything on Altar in the million billion minutes of discography belonging to Boris and Sunn O))), but it’s softness as much as the UNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNworgworgUNNNNNNNNNN we’ve known and absorbed. Three songs into Altar, the album start to float. Heavy is light.
* * *
I would hate to just bluntly ask White Magic if they actually believe in magic—too obvious, too impolite. But even a lump like me can tell that Mira Billotte’s songs about trees and wine and sun and sea refer to more than just a holiday fit for Fairport Convention. White Magic sings one thing and secretly means another, or several secret other things aligned in symbolic harmony. The band put a labyrinth on the back cover where they could have put a map. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Billotte and a new set of supporters—including partner Douglas Shaw, Jim White from Dirty Three, Tim DeWit from Gang Gang Dance and noted New York percussionist Tim Barnes—built White Magic’s first full-length Dat Rosa Mel Apibus around her famously agile voice and the cascading piano melodies she plays to match Bert Jansch’s precision fingerpicking. Rosa is gentle on solemn guitar-and-voice songs like “Katie Cruel” (also covered by probable White Magic inspiration Karen Dalton) and “What I See,” but spins into psychedelic experiment like the sitar raga on “All The World Went” and the dub/reggae arrangement (and production!) for finale “Song of Solomon,” which is almost an Althea and Donna song until the accordion starts pumping toward climax. That’s a dizzy finish to a record that begins with a single piano note, and a happy release for the ideas half-hatched on 2004’s Through The Sun Door EP.
Billotte’s voice is (as always) a bird in flight, and she writes lyrics in careful camouflage, packing love songs and lonely songs with loaded notions of sleep and night and sun and light. It’s potent imagery that just begs projection from the listener. One verse of “Hold Your Hand In The Dark” and I was convinced we’d read the same Philip K. Dick essay: he said, “Sleepers awake!” and she sings, “You’ve been sleeping well, my friends/sleeping well/but if you wake, it may be too late.” Her tense mention of hands in chains and waiting in secret are from a particular idea Dick had about … well, too much of this might put this review to sleep. Different listeners discover different things.
Maybe that means Billotte is just writing easy absolutes—like everyone else, she loves love and dislikes… chains? But of course not. That seven-petaled rose on the cover is too close a copy of a Rosicrucian engraving; the translated title “the rose gives the bees honey” was a line used by alchemists to distinguish the search for spiritual truth from the search for worldly gain, and on Rosa’s second song Billotte sings, “Gone was our need for the things of this world/all we had was love.” Rosa feels full of these century-to-century connections. Hidden in this post-Pentangle piano-psych record is something ferociously righteous. White Magic believes in good research.