Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, the duo behind Sunn O))), embody the doom-drone aesthetic wholly within the folds of their druid robes. Read any article about the band, though, and the reactions are generally split between two factions. Sunn O))) is either portrayed as an intellectualized strain of heavy metal (as The New York Times Magazine opined in 2006) or as a ludicrous theatrical stunt. Even this writer once esteemed the group's live show — featuring a blinding morass of dry ice, pagan ritual, and intestine-scouring bass frequencies loosed in absurdly slooooooow increments — as "Metamucil-stopheles." Said negative outlook has been corrected with each release, with Sunn O))) slowly revealing that it plays not just with the confines of metal and notions of "heaviness," but also with the very act of perception.
For a decade, O'Malley and Anderson have taken Black Sabbath's example of slowing down the blues to an absolute zero extreme, resulting in a body-erasing mélange of low frequencies. Yet with their most recent album, Monoliths & Dimensions, they're inverting more than the work of their predecessors, but also the expectations for Sunn O))) itself. At a listening session for the album, Anderson says the band focused on artful dynamics. "It has a different sort of emotional quality than our other records," he explains. "It starts off very dark and oppressive, but it ends up — to use a cliché — a light at the end of a tunnel."
Those expecting the same viscous sludge of previous efforts might be startled by the fanfares of brass and harp that suddenly appear amid the walls of amplifiers. "We wanted the acoustic instruments to be a real integration, not just an additional element," O'Malley says. "Part of our inspiration came from French composers who work in a 'spectralist' style. A lot of it sounds electronic, but it's not so simple as that. That's all about perception."
To even assume the band operates only as a duo is now erroneous. Sunn O))) collaborated closely with former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar and Australian minimal guitarist and improviser Oren Ambarchi on 2005's Black One and Monoliths, and for innumerable live performances in between. On the new album, the group again expands its ranks. Stuart Dempster — who used to perform John Cage compositions on trombone and didgeridoo — and former Sun Ra sideman Julian Priester breathe deeply into trombones and conch shells. "It's spanning generations with this record," O'Malley says of Sunn O)))'s tendrils, now drawing on fiery jazz and avant-garde composition to further its own heavy agenda. "These guys have been making experimental free music since the '60s. In some ways, it's cool to feel you are part of this longer tradition by having these guys involved."
Comprising four immense slabs of plate-tectonic rumble, Monoliths is a meticulous masterwork. "Agharta" opens with Sunn O)))'s patented drones, only to have them slowly but assuredly blossom into new timbres. Strings and horns make the piece sound like a ghost ship, suddenly arising from unplumbed oceanic depths. And "Big Church" relies on a female choir to cast its eerie ambiance. The record ends with "Alice," the group's most realized yet idiosyncratic piece yet. Anderson explains that it was a "conscious decision to let it breathe in a different way without the oversaturation of guitars." Built upon Sunn O)))'s telltale stomach-churning thud, woodwinds bloom and harp notes materialize out of the murk. It gives the sensation of being both grave and gravity-free at once, proving that what seems the heaviest might also offer the most light.