No band on Earth has harnessed the apocalyptic power and elegance of drone with as much glacial force as Sunn O))). What began in the mid-’90s as a nod to the dark-ambient guitar drones of Olympia, Wash.’s post-grunge anomaly Earth, Sunn O))) (pronounced sun) grew into a spectacle of smoke and rumbling decibels as the group’s core members Stephen O’Malley and bassist Greg Anderson adorned themselves in long, black robes, creating a scene at their shows pulled straight from Dante’s Inferno.
Over the years, the group has incorporated dozens of collaborators and grown to become a dominant force in the trenches of black metal and the avant-garde. But with the group’s members spread out across the globe, getting them together on the same continent is a chore no less monumental than the doom-laden riffs Sunn O))) wields.
Following its latest release, Monoliths & Dimensions, the group has convened for a tour that brings it to the South for the first time. When the members pass through Georgia, they’re scheduled to play in Atlanta at the former church that houses Legends Banquet & Special Event Center. They’re also playing two shows in Athens (Sept. 27-28) at the same church (Seney-Stovall Chapel) where R.E.M. performed in the film Athens, GA: Inside/Out.
The arrival of Monoliths & Dimensions in May marked the end of a four-year wait. The group’s previous studio offering, ’05’s Black One, reinvented the band’s drone-metal dirges with shorter, albeit totally experimental, song structures punctuating their majestic take on minimalism. Crafted by O’Malley and Anderson, it was an organic step up from the sonic haze of overdriven guitar tones and feedback that had previously defined their sound.
But with Monoliths, Sunn O))) has unleashed a monstrous album that sways in a balance of hellish ambiance and beauty. Upon its release, O’Malley and Anderson issued a statement declaring it “the most musical piece we’ve done, and also the heaviest, powerful and most abstract set of chords we’ve laid to tape.”
From beginning-to-end, the 53-minute, four-song masterpiece breathes with spine-chilling strings, horns and angelic/demonic voices ringing out over crackling orchestrations, mountainous resonance and colossal silence. Anderson and O’Malley, along with Attila Csihar — one-time vocalist for Norwegian death metal band Mayhem — and avant-garde guitarist Oren Ambarchi, formed the lineup for this incarnation of Sunn O))) to create an album focused on the timbre of sound, feedback and broad instrumentation.
It is by far the group’s most ambitious offering, and making it come together was no easy chore. “There were times when it felt like it was never going to get finished,” Anderson admits with a sigh of both resignation and accomplishment. “It felt like we had opened a can of worms that we couldn’t handle. With a lot of our releases, I’ve felt like we were in control and there was some sense of how it was going to turn out. But this album was completely the opposite. I never once felt like we were in control of it. Actually, I felt like it was in control of us.”
One obstacle they faced was getting the band’s members in one place. Anderson lives in Los Angeles, O’Malley lives in Paris, Csihar in Budapest and Armbachi in Sydney. The record, however, was recorded in Seattle. Those locations couldn’t be farther apart, so it was a painstaking challenge to say the least.
“We tried, as much as possible, to be in the same room while the record was being created,” says Anderson, who doubles as owner of the boutique metal label Southern Lord, which releases albums by Sunn O))), Earth, Wolves in the Throne Room, and others.
Arranging and recording a Viennese women’s choir to capture the haunting voices in the song “Big Church” demanded time, as well. Other collaborators, including Earth guitarist Dylan Carslon and modern composer Eyvind Kang, added distinct, live touches along the way.
Through it all, Monoliths & Dimensions’ starkest quality takes shape in Csihar’s voice. The album opens with “Aghartha,” a 17-minute primer that begins with a wall of slow, doom-laden guitar noise lifted to make room for Csihar’s vampiric monologue. Though he mutters his low, poetic growl in English, his words are obscured by the slur of his Hungarian accent and the boom of his voice.
“There are some words where his accent really comes through,” Anderson says. “When we were making the record, he would ask, ‘Am I pronouncing this word right?’ and we would say ‘No, but it’s cool. If you correct yourself it will betray your personality and it won’t be spoken the way we want it — as raw and real as possible.’”
In other songs, “Big Church” and “Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)” Csihar sings in his native language, but the low rumble of his voice resonates with the dense layers of guitars, strings and horns.
It’s impressive to hear Csihar’s voice compete with and even overpower the roar of the album’s slight cacophony, much of which is built on layers of atonal sounds that transcend Sunn O)))’s origins. “There is such a huge dynamic range to his voice," Anderson says. “A lot of times, me and Stephen have way more power in the speakers than what the PA has. Attila has a very charismatic voice, and he knows how to use it.” And it’s his voice that adds a sense of beauty and menace to the record, revealing entirely new dimensions of Sunn O)))’s monolithic sound.
Drivin N' Cryin.
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