Sunn O))): Black Hole Sunn
Originally published in Guitar World, December 2009
They may make the densest-sounding tones in the universe, but Sunn O))) manage to fit orchestral instruments, choirs and a whole lot more into Monoliths & Dimensions, their latest adventure into music’s darkest territory.
Inducing altered states is one of my main focal points,” says Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley. “From the ritual of putting on the robes and drinking wine before going onstage to what’s happening with the smoke and lights, the slow tempos, sound pressure, low frequencies and oscillations—everything is set up to shift your brain 20 degrees. I believe real, passionate music can induce other states of mind.”
Monoliths & Dimensions, Sunn O)))’s latest release on taste-making indie Southern Lord Recordings, ranks as the most expansive and orchestral of the band’s seven mind-shifting records, which began back in 1998 with The Grimmrobe Demos. While Sunn O))) initially formed as a tribute to drone/doom pioneers Earth, O’Malley and co-guitarist/bassist Greg Anderson’s restless creativity quickly led them into distinctly new sonic territories, which has allowed the band to continuously evade genre classifications. Attendance at a Sunn O))) show proves the point: hesher stoners, indie hipsters, bookish intellectuals and bizarre artists all gather before Sunn O)))’s waves of sublime subsonics and occult theatrics. To aid in their sonic expansion, over the years Sunn O))) have enlisted a veritable who’s who of cult-star musicians, from black metallers Xasthur and Leviathan to eclectic Japanese rockers Boris to noise pioneers John Wiese and Merzbow.
Sunn O)))’s artistic tides keep shifting, but one thing hasn’t changed in the past 10 years: the core of the group’s sound is still firmly rooted in the classic tube amps after which they’re named, the Sunn Model-T.
“At first we got into them because they were inexpensive,” O’Malley says. “For $300 you could go to a pawn shop and get a 100-watt tube amp. The climate around Sunn amps has changed over the years, and now they’re like $1,500. But all that is secondary. Sunn amps are the engine for what we do.”
With no drummer in the band, Sunn O)))’s sound is truly driven by their Model-Ts. As such, freed of the need to play to a strict meter (to say nothing of having to regulate their volume so the drums could even be heard), O’Malley and Anderson can explore the outer boundaries of volume and deep tonality, which, in turn, allows the guitarists to transcend the confines of traditional metal. “I see Sunn O))) as a kind of fusion band,” Anderson says. “We’re fusing different styles and concepts together. There’s definitely a metal core to what we’re doing, but there’s also experimental, classical and jazz influences.”
These influences are on display on Monoliths & Dimensions. To help augment Sunn O)))’s minimalist metal, the duo recruited a host of guest musicians to provide choral and orchestral elements, such as upright bass, French and English horns, harp, flute, piano, and brass, reed and string ensembles. The contributors included composer Eyvind Kang, Persian vocal specialist Jessika Kenney, a Viennese woman’s choir, Sun Ra trombonist Julian Priester and horn player Stuart Dempster. Sunn O))) brought a few old friends into the mix as well, including Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi, Earth mainman Dylan Carlson and Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar, all of whom added their distinct metal stylings to the project. The result is a sonically rich album that Sunn O))) collectively describe as “a practice in density, gravity and momentum.”
O’Malley and Anderson explain to Guitar World how two metalhead riffers harnessed spectral composition theories and created the mammoth Monoliths & Dimensions.