August 16, 2015

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part XVI - Live Archives

By Craig Hayes. I’ve made it my mission in life to write about all of Sunn O)))'s releases that are available on Bandcamp with this Monoliths and Opinions series. Obviously, documenting the band's exploits in such a way suggests that I am a big fan of Sunn O))). Or that I am a very lonely masochist, with far too much time on my hands.
By Craig Hayes.

Sunn O))) @ Lx Factory, Lisbon, Portugal 2010 by Pedro Roque.

I’ve made it my mission in life to write about all of Sunn O)))'s releases that are available on Bandcamp with this Monoliths and Opinions series. Obviously, documenting the band's exploits in such a way suggests that I am a big fan of Sunn O))). Or that I am a very lonely masochist, with far too much time on my hands. Either way, I should point out that writing this series isn’t a back-breaking task that’s been imposed upon me.

I want to make that clear because there are people out there who would view this Monoliths and Opinions project as some kind of cruel and unusual punishment. They’re the kind of people who think that Sunn O)))'s music is torturous and tedious. Some of those people like to complain very loudly about that online as well. And, not so long ago, I watched a few of those folks launch into some stinging criticism of Sunn O)))'s set at this year's Temples Festival in the UK.

I think that Sunn O))) confounded and crossed the line for some at the Temples Festival is a wonderful indictment of the band’s continued importance. I see Sunn O))) continuing to ruffle feathers in this day and age as a hugely positive sign. Lord knows we need more music that challenges us, tests our temperaments, and isn’t baited with blatant commercial hooks.

Still, it's also important to note that a defence of Sunn O)))'s music isn't necessarily needed or even wanted by the band's critics. We all have bands we simply love to hate no matter what anyone else thinks. We all piss and moan about those bands. And no amount of explaining or clarifying the appeal of those bands is going to convince us to change our opinion one iota.

Really, in the case of providing any explanation for a series like this Monoliths and Opinions project, all I can say is that I'm not indulging in any duplicitous or disingenuous antics here. I'm not trying to sell Sunn O))) to you. Nor is any neurotic or unhealthy fixation keeping me preoccupied with Sunn O)))'s oeuvre. I've simply been fascinated by the unconventionality of Sunn O)))'s music since I first heard the band 15 years ago.

I discovered Sunn O))) via the band's ØØ Void album, which was released in 2000. ØØ Void resonated with me because it spoke directly to that part of me that had been utterly entranced by Earth's Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version album way back in 1993. Of course, Sunn O))) have mentioned the debt they owe to Dylan Carlson's famed band many times over the years. And it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Earth invented the entire drone or ambient metal genre.

At the heart of it, ØØ Void appealed to me because it was very different to anything being released at the time. (Both in metal and experimental music circles.) It felt like a fresh challenge. One where Sunn O))) stripped their music back to the purest and rawest essence of the riff. That was bold, bruising, and inherently idiosyncratic and defiant. Sunn O))) dared you to make it through ØØ Void. I loved that about Sunn O))). Still do. And I imagine that's the same reason that many of the band’s fans continue to tune in.

That said, I completely understand why some people remain utterly perplexed by Sunn O)))'s appeal. Fact is, Sunn O)))'s music is not easy on the ear or accessible. Sunn O))) deal in drone, and drone is an acquired taste and niche musical medium at the best of times. Drone is something you feel (or not) at an instinctual level. And if you happen to feel that drone is monotonous, featureless and dull, then you'll clearly be left wondering how anyone could enjoy any of Sunn O)))'s protracted tracks.

There are no halfway measures with Sunn O))). It's all in or nothing at all. And Sunn O))) unquestionably use provocative musical techniques that could easily lead to a hostile response. We all know how irritating it is to encounter music that immediately rubs us the wrong way. And the soundscapes that Sunn O))) explore are formidable.

Sunn O))) frequently ignore musical mainstays like rhythm or melody. They deal in teeth-rattling distortion, feedback, and subterranean vibrations and reverberations. The band's songs are performed at an incredibly slow pace. And there is absolutely nothing about Sunn O))) that is going to appeal to fans of turbo-speed rock 'n' roll.

Hell, there’s not even an easy entry point into the band's catalogue. Sunn O)))’s most popular album, 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions (the album's title summing up the band's aesthetic perfectly) did find favour with a wider audience on release. But, even then, Monoliths & Dimensions was still an imposing album with made zero compromises made for the listeners comfort therein.

Sunn O))) @ Lx Factory, Lisbon, Portugal 2010 by Pedro Roque.

Still, no matter the critical adoration or their expanding fanbase, Sunn O)))’s music remains easy to mock or dismiss because that's the way many eccentric forms of artistic expression are routinely treated. A lot of challenging art (and music) is immediately scoffed at. And that frequently reveals more about the underlying values of the scoffer than it does the essence of the art.

Often, gripes arise to mask confusion about the meaning behind avant-garde works of art. None of us like to feel that we're missing the point and, sometimes, it's simply that misunderstandings occur because we're not aware of the particular lineage or history behind off-kilter works of art or music.

Weird music is tough to unpack. To conceptualise. And to appreciate.

However, alternatively, having an aversion to Sunn O))) might not be the result of any of the above issues. Some folks just hate the band because they find them mind-numbingly boring. And there’s nothing complicated about that at all.

I get that too. It's that age-old aversion to music you just find fucking tiresome. And that's exactly how I feel about deathcore. Or screamo. Or goregrind. Or pirate metal. Or most symphonic or folk metal. Or [insert some truly awful band like Dream Theater or Soulfly right here].

For me, the allure of Sunn O)))’s music is that it sounds and feels like a form of orchestrated chaos kicking down those famed doors of perception. The band's sub-harmonic and frequently nerve-tweaking pursuits offer a very powerful experience if you're willing to give yourself over to the band’s music. Immerse yourself in Sunn O)))’s universe and the band’s sojourns become transcendent journeys. There's a jaunt beyond the stars here. A trip to higher plane or another dimension there. Or just a steep dive into the very darkest pits of Hades.

It's really no different to getting lost in or swept away by any other musical form that affects you deeply. Albeit, with Sunn O)))'s mode of transportation being of the more leaden-footed and monolithic variety. Of course, making an effort to understand why fans enjoy Sunn O)))'s music is not on the radar for many of the folks who like to complain about the band. They're often just really pissed because Sunn O))) represents an arm of experimental metal that’s skirted close to wider acceptance.

Certainly, although Sunn O))) are never going to a hugely popular band in commercial terms, many of the group's fans do reside outside of metal's borders. We all know that some folks feel very aggrieved when an outré metal band gets paid any attention by the mainstream media. And we’ve all seen groups like Deafheaven or Liturgy get vilified in quarters of the metal media for turning up on pages of the mainstream press.

The point to keep in mind is that Sunn O)))'s founders, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, are not casual metal tourists or newcomers to making in-your-face music. See Khanate, Burning Witch and Goatsnake for proof of that. Nor have O'Malley and Anderson committed some crime against the underground by finding themselves under the spotlight. If anything, O'Malley and Anderson are forging ahead with a distinctly underground attitude by continuing to make challenging music. That’s a laudable feat, I would have thought. Even if you didn't happen to like the noise being made.

Sunn O))) does speak a very unorthodox musical language. Stretching riffs out to infinity while destroying many routine musical motifs sees the physicality of sound often used as a key instrumental component. As a result, a pressure-wave is frequently at the forefront of the band’s sound. Yet, O'Malley and Anderson have always been open to explaining exactly what is it they're doing and, more importantly, why they're doing it without any pretentiousness. In fact, some of O'Malley and Anderson's interviews have been incredibly open and frank and they've subsequently made for truly fascinating insights into the world of explorative music.

Of course, in the end, there’s just no pleasing some folks. Discussions of why and how Sunn O))) make all that noise are of little value to someone who's not going to read them anyway. Obviously, not everyone appreciates everything. And we wouldn't want a world overflowing with sycophants anyway. Some people just instinctively hate the fact that Sunn O))) is deemed interesting or worthy of coverage. And I imagine a negative reaction pleases O'Malley and Anderson just as much as a positive one.

Sunn O))) @ Lx Factory, Lisbon, Portugal 2010 by Pedro Roque.

Ultimately, to my eyes and ears, the whole point of Sunn O)))'s music is to provoke a visceral reaction. And Sunn O)))’s latest Bandcamp venture, a live archive page filled with dozens of concert recordings, is guaranteed to do that.

In fact, for people who find Sunn O))) perplexing, boring or downright annoying, the 77 shows available on the band's live archive page are sure to be a horror show beyond measure. I've been a fan of Sunn O))) forever. And I’m certain I want the band's The Iron Soul Of Nothing collaboration with Nurse With Wound to soundtrack my funeral. But, even then, fandom assured, Sunn O)))’s live archive page still fills me with dread.

It would be a huge challenge to try and pick apart every individual recording on Sunn O)))'s live archive page. So I won’t be reviewing them one by one here. Honestly, writing about the particulars of each one of those live recordings is too much for this old man. But I will say this: The shows on Sunn O)))'s live archive page date back to 2002. They are unmixed and unmastered––i.e presented in their rawest state. And if you're a fan or critic of the band, you'll know exactly what to expect.

There's hooded figures shrouded in fog wielding huge riffs and making a gloriously ear-splitting racket on every one of those live recordings. There are plenty of guests and collaborators adding their own thunderous elements too. And you could certainly look at the sum total of those live recordings as a rather awe-inspiring riposte to Sunn O)))’s critics.

Every one of those live recordings features all the fundamental Sunn O))) elements that folks gripe about writ large and goddamn loud. Which, I have to admit, I kind of love about the band. I love that Sunn O))) have never made any excuses for cutting their own weird and cacophonous path into the hinterlands of experimental music. Pick up any of the recordings linked in this essay, or any other from the band's live archives page and you'll certainly be greeted by different points of exploration. However, what you are facing, in overwhelming abundance on that live archive page, is exactly the same vast wall-of-noise that provokes such intense reactions every single time Sunn O))) takes the stage.

For me, that means Sunn O)))'s live archives page contains untold manna from the Gods of sonic subversiveness. For others, that page might well be Hell on earth. Both are entirely understandable reactions. And both are reactions that I think O’Malley and Anderson would wholeheartedly approve of.

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.
  1. I have never listend to them or given attention to the genre. However, your essay about the aspects of their sound which intrigues some and provokes confusion in others was phenomenal piece of writing and ajoy to read!

  2. Thanks so much! I very much appreciate you reading the piece, and cheers for dropping a comment in as well.

  3. This was amazing! Thank you!

  4. CasualNerdAugust 05, 2018

    Thanks for this! Well said. I think one of the issues is folks forget that listening to sound and music and appreciate it to its full extend requires, besides a functioning set of ears, Imagination.

  5. Sunn O))) is basically an ambient group that uses the timbres of heavy metal. Amazing, gorgeous walls of sound that horrify rather then relax. Peace.