July 8, 2013

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part VII - Monoliths & Dimensions

Written by Craig Hayes.

Self-proclaimed 'power ambient' duo Sunn O))) was formed by guitarist Stephen O’Malley and bassist Greg Anderson in the mid 90s, and since then, the band has explored the possibilities of sonic and emotional reward via thundering and increasingly more adventurous drones. Recently, Sunn O))) put their entire catalogue up on Bandcamp, and over the next few months I'm going to look at every release. Call it my 'Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions' project, or call it a fan biting off far more than he can chew. Whatever the case, here we go... unto the breach my friends; I hope to see you on the other side.

Cover art: Richard Serra "Out-of-Round X" (1999)
...music is like a mirror, you know, you project your emotional state into it and you can take out a various amount of your emotional state. As far as being a player in the music, the main emotion is transcendence, when it's done right ... transcendence has a joy attached to it.
– Stephen O'Malley, Wire magazine interview.
Let's just get the obvious fact that Monoliths & Dimensions is a transcendent masterpiece out of the way first. Obviously, it's easy to mock the term transcendent, and Sunn O))) themselves aren't afraid to throw a few sly winks the listeners’ way while toying with gigantic sounds and themes. However, the teeth-rattling physicality of Sunn O))), and the low-end distortions and frequencies of their sound, are used as provocative sonic devices as much as any note, chord or refrain. At the end of the day, there's really no other word to describe the full-blown impact of those reverberations, and Monoliths & Dimensions’ title is certainly an apt summation of the band's fundamental premise and aesthetic.

The four songs that make up the album – "Aghartha," "Big Church," "Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)," and "Alice" – are sublime representations of Sunn O)))'s maximal minimalism; consummate reflections of light set against dark. Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley returned to lengthier compositions on Monoliths & Dimensions, following Black One's shorter, murkier and grimmer fare. But what was most surprising was the amount of radiance and color the album exuded – although, with vocalist Attila Csihar on board to dispense the dark metaphysical musings, those hues are streaked with wonderfully sour shadings too.

While Sunn O))) may previously have been defined by its grim robes, Monoliths & Dimensions brought a sense of rapture in its balance of restraint and abandon. Sure, the band performed live with monks' cowls pulled up, Csihar hissed, gurgled and growled up front, and the smoke machines expelled a choking haze, but Monoliths & Dimensions expanded Sunn O)))'s sonic girth, unveiled symphonic and choral arrangements, and favored the spiritual potential of jazz and blues, bringing soulful muscularity to the album.

Photo by Sean Hopson

Take, for example, the album's final track, "Alice". The song title itself is a tip of the hat to jazz legend Alice Coltrane, and you'll find the expected funereal stew of electric bass and guitar, but there's also violin, viola, French and English horns, harp, clarinet, flute, oboe, trombone and double bass – all arranged by noted composer Eyvind Kang. Kang's arrangements throughout Monoliths & Dimensions bring brass, conch shells, bells, strings, and woodwind into the proximity of Sunn O)))'s devastating drone, yet through subtle interweaving they add to the band's core hulking noise, creating much of that aforementioned pigment and rhapsody.

"Alice" sees a pile of instrumentation from numerous guest performers added in, but the song emerges as a suite that is mangling and mighty, yet intimate and gentle – the trombone solo to finish drifts out with bittersweet elegance. "Alice" is the perfect example of the expansive space ripped open by Monoliths & Dimensions, where volume, vibrations and crawling chord progressions result in ruptures of beauty and dissonance. Much has been made of Richard Serra's "Out-of-round X" cover art – its magnitude of size and depth encouraging even larger contemplations – and there are parallels to be drawn between art that engulfs and Monoliths & Dimensions' ability to offer immense soundscapes that conversely encourage insular, meditative and, yes, transcendent states.

On Monoliths & Dimensions, that level of contemplative energy is profound – the strongest Sunn O))) has ever produced. The band's previous endeavors had welcomed an increasing array of metal, noise and experimental musicians into the fold, but Monoliths & Dimensions features dozens of different collaborators, all bringing their individual voices, ideas and musicianship to the album. Along with the aforementioned Kang, Australian guitar player Oren Ambarchi returns with vocalist Attila Csihar, and joining them are Earth's Dylan Carlson, trombonists Julian Priester (ex-Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock) and Stuart Dempster, vocalist Jessika Kenney, noise-maker Daniel Menche, Steve Moore, Rex Ritter, Joe Preston and a Viennese women's choir too. The roll call of performers is vast, and Monoliths & Dimensions is, accordingly, Sunn O)))'s most ambitious album. But while it takes the band into new territory compositionally, it isn't, as O'Malley noted, "Sunn O))) with strings, or metal-meets-orchestra material."

Photo by Sean Hopson

Although Monoliths & Dimensions isn't, as O'Malley rightly points out, Sunn O))) gone wholly orchestral, the album's cosmic and creative freedom clearly draws from the free-jazz bent of Sun Ra's Arkestra. Similarly, Sunn O))) explore texture and tone, with the extra instrumentation advancing the virtues of timbre and tenor more than any firm structural concepts. Opener "Aghartha" oozes forth with a giant buzzing riff digging into a deep furrow. O'Malley and Greg Anderson are joined by a chamber ensemble, a dung chen (Tibetan horn), and discordant piano, strings, effects and horns. Waves of sound wash in, buffeted in the dank churn, and with tortuous creaks and the enigmatic dry baritone of Csihar speaking of tunnels opening, "Into the great nothing" and, "Giant spaces that rent gravity/Unto the depths of the earth" you have a track that's earth-quaking in its magnitude.

"Big Church [Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]" features the Viennese women's choir lead by Jessika Kenney (and comes with a fantastic opening riff that sounds like it’s digging its way out of Stalingrad’s heaps of rubble). The '[Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]' subtitle is an almost untranslatable Hungarian notion dealing with consecration and deconsecration, and the song fittingly comprises angelic voices wrapped around a ceremonial drone overload. Guitars from Earth's Dylan Carlson, Oren Ambarchi, O'Malley and Anderson are joined by Csihar's cavernous barks, with layers of trombone and organ from Steve Moore, and choir, brass and string arrangements buried among fevered chants. "Big Church," like the rest of Monoliths & Dimensions, is a superb example of beautifully gruesome gospel. Follow-up, "Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia)", sees a male choir of William Herzog, Brad Mowen, Daniel Menche and Joe Preston provide the deep growls, and with the gong, moog and keyboards of Ambarchi, Ritter, Moore, respectively, it all resembles rumbling machinery crushing cathedrals; triumphant trombones blare like a '70s horror soundtrack with every merciless turn of the rusting gears.

Photo by Sean Hopson

For those who may find Sunn O)))'s previous work too dense or forbidding, Monoliths & Dimensions opens up their sound – so much so that it has become their most visible release yet in terms of widespread media coverage. That's not to say that Monoliths & Dimensions is particularly accessible (the feedback-soaked deconstruction of doom is ever present), but the way in which Sunn O))) surround their fundamental primitive ventures with additional explorations of acoustic sound results in a tour-de-force of imagination. Minimalism is stretched to its maximum potential, providing handholds for the band's low-end to climb to more sunlit heights, while the guitar drones continue their cruel acts of compression – crushing the nerve endings, and squeezing the psyche.

Irrespective of genre, Monoliths & Dimensions is simply a perfect example of true artistry. The album is a gut-level, instinctual punch, and a means of kick-starting deep rumination, and it's that duality that makes it such a transcendent work. Echo, silence, mammoth noise, and swells of evocative ensembles offer rich rewards for repeated listens, and few, if any, bands have come close to such a gloriously creative collision of metal and experimental music. There's no doubt that Monoliths & Dimensions is an outstanding piece of avant-garde virtuosity – as seminal a work as the very best defining releases of Swans, Current 93, Coil or Nurse With Wound.

(Here ends the run through of Sunn O)))'s core full-length albums. If you've hung in this far on the Monoliths and Opinions journey, then cheers – I really appreciate the company. Next week we begin to tackle Sunn O)))'s live albums and other important full-length and EP remixes and collaborations. Until then… )

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.

  1. I'm beginning to think this band isn't for me. I listened to "Aghartha" and "Alice" again and had a similar reaction to when I heard them the first time.

    I'd like to believe the opinions laid out here, but my ears tell me otherwise.

  2. After Black One and White 1 this is my favorite. This was such a huge step forward for them.