September 9, 2016 | Parma, Italy | Labirinto Della Masone
Written by Nicola Vinciguerra| Photography by Andrea Gregorini
When I first heard that Sunn O))) would be performing in the world’s largest labyrinth, I was both beyond excited and quite surprised, as I had wanted to visit this location since I first learned about its existence. But I would have never, ever expected to do so for a Sunn O))) gig, of all things. Even more so since the last band I am aware of that performed at this location is Air. So, go figure.
A bit of background is necessary here, as the location is just as meaningful as the performance in itself. Labirinto Della Masone in Fontanellato, Parma is an enormous, megalomaniacal pet project of Italian, exceedingly rich and bizarre editor/collector, Franco Maria Ricci. His name will likely not ring a bell to most non-Italian readers out there, but this 78 year old man is a force of nature. Ricci is a bit like a renaissance man (a term I previously used to describe Freak Animal Record‘s Mikko Aspa for the diversity of his artistic output; although I’m not sure if either of them would feel flattered for the comparison): A true patron of the arts of many interests, endeavors and skills, with access to a seemingly bottomless pit of money. According to Ricci’s own words, he was first inspired to build a labyrinth while amiably chatting with Jorge Luis Borges in his home (I believe he was his editor in Italy at one point, and the event was dedicated to the anniversary of the Argentinian writer’s death) in the 70s (?), and it took him a whole lot of time – and a lot of bamboo – to make his dream a reality. The labyrinth, which also houses his private art collection, opened its doors to the public in 2015. For the task, he chose one of the most terrific and weirdest architects from the new classical aesthetic: Driehus prize-winner, Pier Carlo Bontempi, who was also originally from the Parma area. Among other things, this man is involved with the development of Val d’Europe, a whole new town built by the Disney empire in collaboration with the French government just between Eurodisney and Paris, inspired by uncle Walt’s urban utopia, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. And guess what good old Pier Carlo designed for this town? Why of course, a mock Italian piazza with a large obelisk right in the middle. Dirty old XIX century freemasonry fan boys united!
This introduces us to the kitschy masonic overtones of the Labirinto complex. In fact, the whole place resembles a cross between an Italo-napoleonic military fortress, a neo-classic XIX masonic architecture (I can think of a few places in London or Torino, for example), along with strange Italian monuments built by rich eccentrics in the past, like Rocchetta Mattei or grotesque gardens such as Giardino Dei Mostri in Bomarzo. I imagine Stephen O’Malley & co were extremely ecstatic when they came across it. Getting to Fontanellato itself is not easy if you don’t own a car, so I would like to thank the Sicilian friends who came all the way from their island for the gig and brought me and my wife (who photographed the event for this report) along with them. A whole lot of people arrived from all around Italy, and some even from other countries and the overall turn-out was exceedingly good. The town itself is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, not far from Parma, in the middle of Pianura Padana (Italy’s biggest plain), and it houses a beautiful castle called Rocca Sanvitale which is not too different in spirit from Ricci’s labyrinth. The Rocca is rich with late renaissance frescos by Parmigianino, depicting Greek divinities, hunting scenes, half human/half animal hybrids and excerpts from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Not bad for a small town, right?
Parking in a huge countryside field which smelled like cow dung was quite an experience, especially when everyone who emerged out of the car was wearing a shirt from either an obscure doom or black metal band. It almost felt like being transported to a summer open-air metal festival in a dystopian world, where Moss are more popular than Iron Maiden. After a fairly long walk along mosquito-ridden canals and giant walls of bamboo, we finally made it in the impressive open court at the entrance, consequently where a Taiko drum ensemble from a zen temple was playing really loud. Although it sounded fairly decent and unlike the Nintendo DS game, Taiko No Tatsujin, it was difficult to actually see anything since it was extremely crowded. After they were done, I noticed that the court (aside from a bar) also offered a fancy food boutique which sold warm beer, overly-priced Italian ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I cannot say for sure, but I suppose that’s a first for a Sunn O))) gig.
The second “set” of the night was the projection of a video art piece by N!03 conveying some possible “end of the world” scenarios. The audio was decent and well-produced, but unfortunately the images were quite uninteresting to me. Not long afterward, finally, it was time to get to the main stage at the center of the labyrinth. We were guided through the green maze (made of 200,000 bamboo plants of various species and heights) by white paper lamps and a horde of people wearing plague master masks. They bowed to us, screamed, laughed maniacally in the dark and just made everything seem like a lame Vampire The Masquerade live action role play session or a piss-poor rendition of Eyes Wide Shut. I am not sure which is worse. The walk in itself was amazing, however: fairly long, scarcely lit, surreal and dominated by a column of light cutting the black sky in two. When we arrived to the inner sanctum, we were completely and utterly amazed. The place is simply majestic. It resembles that of a court in a rectangular shape, with an astonishingly over-the-top pyramid in the back. The aforementioned column of light emerged from an array of huge lamps right on the stage in front of the pyramid, while the rest of the court was either dark or submerged in a disquieting, sleazy red light. Fog machines and PA were positioned all around the audience area. Big kudos to whoever designed the lights and the stage, as they did an excellent job.
The hype and trepidatious expectations were palpable with every murmur of the crowd (a thousand attendees or more I believe). When finally, a robed Attila Csihar magically appeared on top of the entrance to the pyramid, looming several meters over the audience, with a huge spotlight pointed right at him – he stood put against the red bricks of the masonic temple as everyone below screamed like crazy. He proceeded to chant and recite in a language that sounded like old Norse or Icelandic to me (maybe our very own language expert, Kate McDonald could have helped in this case!), punctuated by short bursts of tuva-like throat singing. All the while, he moved his body in a very theatrical, messianic way which enriched the performance and was absolutely captivating. Everyone had just instantly stopped talking and a sea of jaws, mine included, had dropped. The complete silence surrounding Attila’s slightly reverberated mantras and otherworldly setting created something that I will not easily forget. Perhaps it was cheesy, comical or just plain boring to some people, but for the majority, it was aesthetically and aurally coherent, and additionally very special. As for the drone (ha!) that kept on flying above the stage, I would have gladly shot it down, but it was a small price to pay while enjoying Tormentor’s front man’s amazing performance. To be honest, it was probably my favorite part of the whole performance, as it was much more intense than what I heard from Attila’s solo project, Void Ov Voices.
After awhile, the other four members of Sunn O))) (Anderson, O’Malley, Moore and Niewenhuizen I believe) joined the stage and the smoke from the fog machines started to rise almost in unison with their trademark buzzing, rumbling wall of distorted drone. As per usual, the heavy low-end sounds made my bowels shake and the high-pitched frequencies of feedback made my teeth cringe – which is pretty much my definition of a perfect concert. The lights shifted from white/blue to red, Attila Csihar disappeared again while the others continued on delivering their state of the art, blissful audio torture, all the while striking their classic “kvlt” poses and passing each other a bottle of wine. That’s Sunn O))) in a nutshell. Csihar walked on stage again about twenty minutes in and growled, hissed, droned on in concordance with the rest of the ichorous magma of sound. The members kept on rotating for the whole set – first utilizing vocals, synthesizer, keyboard, electronics and trumpet (!) alone on stage for a good bit; then following up with just two guitarists like in good old times; and lastly the whole band joined up again for the grand finale. The intensity never dropped down and the volume was constantly, heavily blasting yet not as physically hurtful/threatening as I initially expected, perhaps the open-air setting saved my ears. There was somewhat of a “variety” in sounds, although as much as that is expected with Sunn O))), the whole performance flowed effortlessly like a proper single composition.
When the sheer magnitude of it all was at its peak, Stephen O’Malley theatrically invited the audience to imitate him and raise their hands to summon Eldritch entities from the abyss beyond time by collectively squeezing a pair of imaginary flying balls. And they did! Just take a moment to imagine a thousand people joining Sunn O))) in their classic poses in the dark – it was quite a sight to behold. This spontaneous moment of fun, joy and sincere praise for the pure and simple sonic pleasure of having a huge wall of amplifiers and massive PA pumping out an endless barrage of extremely loud noise was the real ritual of the night: A communion. It broke the otherwise fairly serious tones of the gig and brought everyone together under the banner of the True Sound Of Love™. It almost reminded me of the general feeling of excitement and joy I once witnessed at Hijokaidan, Incapacitants or Pain Jerk concerts, with the exception of more horns and pentacles involved. Additionally, when O’Malley pointed a fog machine right in the face of the people standing in the front row like it was like a massive, orgiastic noise cumshot – this was all too perfect.
Last but not least, the final appearance of Attila Csihar in his crazy mirrored, spiked outfit was pretty extraordinary. Imagine a cross between Arthur Brown and a Japanese theater actor shrieking his lungs off and you’ll get pretty close idea as to what I experienced. Every aspect of the show was on-point and extremely well rehearsed. The whole event lasted around two hours and a half, so it was probably a bit too much for some people to last through in its entirety (in fact, a few left before the end, but not as many as I expected), although I prefer to think of it as an endurance test, and it wouldn’t have worked in any other way. It was a painful, tiring, stunning, blissful and beautiful overall experience. Sunn O))) reached an enviable level of cohesion and integrity between their aesthetics and sound. I truly believe that right now they are at the apex of their game. Or at least, they work much better together than they did last time I saw them around ten years ago.
I have never been a huge fan of the band per say (having liked them more in theory than in practice), but this performance at Labirinto Della Masone has made me change my mind entirely. Under the appropriate setting, Sunn O))) can deliver one of the most spectacular shows around, while managing to make a pretty difficult and hostile kind of music palatable to those who are not used to such or that simply wouldn’t care otherwise. Their presence and overall loudness is so overwhelming that they are bound to make a lasting impression. Whether for good or bad, something in you changes when you are watching them live. Once the noise cavalcade stopped altogether, the Sunn O))) boys dropped their hoods (or in Attila’s case; shiny crowned aesthetics) and greeted the ecstatic, screaming crowd with big smiles and hugs, equivalent to a regular stadium rock band. Even some kids behind me yelled: “Ma sono dei regaz!” It is slang from Bologna which translates to something along the lines of, “Hey, they’re just like us!” or “Hey, they’re good guys!” Similar to an Italian version of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”. The stars were aligned, and the ritual was complete.