For all the humour and even high pantomime of Sunn O))) (they have a track called “HELL-O)))-WEEN”! The singer is dressed as a tree, and shooting lasers from his fingers!), it is clear that Stephen O’Malley wants to be taken seriously as an artist. His most recent live appearances have been in increasingly improvisational settings with Aethenor, which has brought him into contact with the free jazz community via their drummer Steve Noble. And now he has assumed that position of respect du jour, that of label curator. Having given John Elliott a similar role on their electronic Spectrum Spools offshoot, Editions Mego have put O’Malley at the head of a new acoustic imprint called Ideologic Organ. Without electricity there can be no lasers; the first pair of releases, from Phurpa and the pairing of Jessica Kenney and Eyvind Kang, focus primarily on the human voice.
Phurpa are a Russian group who have taken a journey to a place a few thousand miles south east of Moscow. Their name derives from the sacred texts of Bön, a Tibetan spiritual tradition which may (sacred texts are, in fact, somewhat scant and lacking in detail) date back tens of thousands of years, long before Buddhism had nestled amongst the Himalayas. The two traditions had a difficult early co-habitation, with members of the then predominant Bön population being persecuted and even sent into exile. Since then, the Dalai Lama has granted Bön a status equivalent to the four pillars of Tibetan buddhism, and around ten per cent of Tibetans still regard themselves as Bön.
There are important differences between Bön and buddhism, including their respective attitudes to the afterlife, as well as some more trifling ones – for example, I’m sure no-one is going to go to holy war on whether you should circumnavigate clockwise or counter-clockwise during prayers. Despite this separateness, both traditions have much in common, and have even become intertwined to an extent over the years. Ideas of life spirit, enlightenment, and healing are shared, and the areas of overlap include some of their ritualistic practices, or acts of devotion (puja): for example, their music. Phurpa’s double album Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (originally released on CD in 2008) showcases the throat singing style which is used by monks of either religion as puja, and to help them attain enlightenment.
The start of a track on Trowo Phurnag Ceremony is usually signified by the clang of a singing bowl, a low call from a Tibetan horn, or a light clatter of percussion, but after that, they are predominantly polyphonic. At first listen, you can hear an obvious link to Sunn O))), not just via the common interest in low drones, but in that their Hungarian vocalist Attila Cshar has a style which builds links between black metal and the throat singing tradition. But Phurpa really do take the level of intensity, and the level of seriousness, much higher. A mere thirty two minutes of Trowo Phurnag Ceremony groan and creak under the weighty title “Conferring Empowerment and Self-Transformation” – “HELL-O)))-WEEN” this isn’t.
Across the four sides of this double album, layers of long, deep, droning voices are punctuated by understandably exhausted-sounding gasps for breath, and the whole is scoured by the whirling overtones that the singers produce via manipulating mouth shape. These higher sounds begin like gentle breezes through a forest, but come together and strengthen until they are more akin to a wind blasting across an icy, mountainous plateau. This doesn’t sound like mere dilettantism: you surely can’t just dip in and out of this music, particularly given the level of skill involved. In order to attain this impressive level of vocal proficiency, Phurpa have undergone a considerable period not just of geographical relocation, but of musical transformation, one which has taken them from far their roots as a Russian industrial music band. But over and above this, they now sound utterly immersed in this tradition, and a cultural voyeur like myself can only imagine the profound spiritual effect that learning and performing it has had on them.