Sunn O)))

Monoliths and DimensionsSouthern Lord RecordsThe beautiful ambient/minimalist electronica of Australian anti-guitarist Oren Ambarchi has been one of the discoveries of the last five years for me. His involvement in a new CD, Monoliths and Dimensions, was the...

Monoliths and Dimensions
Southern Lord Records

The beautiful ambient/minimalist electronica of Australian anti-guitarist Oren Ambarchi has been one of the discoveries of the last five years for me. His involvement in a new CD, Monoliths and Dimensions, was the reason for my interest in the American band Sunn O))), Ambarchi’s stablemates on the Southern Lord label and the duo behind this body-shaking experience.

A quick internet search for Sunn O))) (simply pronounced ‘sun’ and named after the band’s amplifier manufacturer) will throw up a number of tags, not least among them ‘Drone Metal’. With reference to their latest CD (their seventh studio album), a moniker like this is more distracting than illuminating. Despite having what I like to think is a broad listening experience, I can honestly say that I have nothing useful to compare this recording to. If I had to reach a bit, the opening of the first track might be described as Black Sabbath in amber – a series of incredibly loud and deep (drop-tuned, in fact) overdriven chords which have no apparent rhythm, just a tectonic rate of change. Yet, throughout this seventeen-minute track and the succeeding three, with guest artist Attila Csihar’s granular vocal contribution also a vital element, there is such a palpable sense of organic evolution that by the end of the CD you find yourself listening to what in a different context could be taken as a kind of Dixieland brass combo, but which nonetheless seems to make perfect sense here.

Much of the credit for this must go to Eyvind Kang, whose orchestrations open up Sunn O)))’s rather hermetic, thorax-shuddering soundworld, adding colours and timbres presumably new to the band’s oeuvre, yet which seem grown from their core sound rather than grafted on. Kang’s judicious addition of brass and strings here and there and, strikingly, a Scandinavian female choir at the start of the second track, Big Church, hints at all sorts of things without clearly being anything else but Sunn O))). Of Ambarchi’s contribution, well, once you know it’s there it’s easier to spot – droning, looping, almost-subtones, underpinning much of the first three tracks in a back-seat-driver kind of way. It’s the fourth track though, Alice, where his own sound is foregrounded, and this is also the airiest number on the album. Even a harp makes an appearance as Alice progresses, and I like to think the title refers to Alice Coltrane’s glissando-ing harp playing in albums like Journey in Satchidananda, but that’s just a guess.

Ultimately, the CD is best approached as objectively as possible – pay no heed to the bad-pantomime costumes the band members normally adorn themselves in for live shows; this is truly a visceral experience (you must turn the volume up) and a surprisingly rewarding one.

Published on 1 August 2009

Ian Wilson is a composer

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