Right from the start, Sunn O))) have taken an experimental approach to extreme metal, emerging as a band notable for wrong-footing audiences’ preconceptions of the genre. The core duo of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley are perhaps best known for combining theatrical performance – monks’ robes, dry ice and a wall of Sunn amplifiers – with music played at intensely powerful volume levels, that deconstructs basic metal riffs.
Fans have come to expect Sunn O))) to move the goalposts with every recording. That the new album Monoliths & Dimensions features numerous orchestral instruments and choirs as well as referencing esoteric jazz, should perhaps not be too much of a surprise, given the band’s recently expanded live line-ups and the increasing centrality of Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar, whose presence bridges black metal with more academic extended vocal techniques. Yet it is still hard not to be taken aback by the album’s scale and ambition: from the first tense, guttural growl of guitar to the final harp glissando of ‘Alice’, its intent rarely wavers. One often feels Sunn O))) make metal about metal, perhaps as a way of highlighting the often overlooked artistry and sonic innovation of the form, and this recording draws direct but fundamentally respectful parallels between metal and other unexpectedly extreme musics: in this case free jazz and contemporary classical music, comparisons echoed on the album’s sleeve image by Richard Serra.
Anderson and O’Malley’s careful choice of collaborators, many of whom have long-standing links with the band, ensures that the undertaking feels excitingly holistic and not the queasy clash of styles one might expect. This is achieved mainly by exploring each instrument’s timbral properties ahead of its cultural connotations. In opening track ‘Agartha’ (which shares its title with a 1975 Miles Davis album), a swarm of high-end strings imitate feedback loops, while a double-bass shudders and scrapes in an approximation of the rending sounds wrung from both overdriven guitars and Csihar’s remarkably over-toned rasp of a voice. Csihar’s vocals and those of a female choir led by Jessika Kenney on ‘Big Church’ will be the focal point of the album for many. The choral arrangement, which has echoes of liturgical music, Olivier Messaien and Gyorgi Ligeti, is glacial and precise, but also disquieting in its use of odd tonal intervals. The guitar lines – co-arranged by composer and violinist Eyvind Kang – frame rather than dictate the track’s direction, as if in acknowledgement of the human voice’s acoustic power. It is oddly reminiscent of Scott Walker’s work with orchestras on Tilt (1995) and The Drift (2006) in creating a singular, indefinably dark atmosphere. Kang’s arrangement also shapes the lush finale, ‘Alice’, named in tribute to jazz pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, whose ecstatic work with orchestral instruments on albums such as Universal Consciousness (1971) prefigures this track’s layered, impressionistic harmonies. However, it’s also important to listen beyond these textures of string, wind and voice, for O’Malley and Anderson’s guitar and bass work are the binding agents in any Sunn O))) record, their command of amplification and attack setting the mood for each track, further developed here by guitarist Oren Ambarchi’s electronic manipulations of the instrument. In ‘Hunting & Gathering’, their wonderfully noxious guitar riffs and a chanted, angular vocal are lent a strange gravitas by trombonist Steve Moore’s stormy brass arrangement and minimal orchestral percussion, in one of the album’s most successful syntheses of electric and acoustic instrumentation.
It would be easy for Monoliths & Dimensions to feel airless and over-ornate, such is the finesse with which it has been constructed. That it does not is probably one of the album’s foremost achievements. Those impatient with Sunn O)))’s increasingly complex work might take issue with the project’s meticulous detail, its clear references to other genres, and by implication, Sunn O)))’s perception of their place within the pantheon of experimental music. However, they would be advised to put sleevenotes and preconceptions aside and focus in on the timbre, on the interplay of sub-bass frequencies with deep, bowed strings, the ululations of voices, the treated guitars and the fade from feedback into unexpected, blissful melody.