Music Reviews
Monoliths & Dimensions

Sunn O))) Monoliths & Dimensions

(Southern Lord) Rating - 9/10

“The album is not ‘SUNN O))) with strings’ or ‘metal meets orchestra’ material.” — excerpt from the press release for Monoliths & Dimensions
The music of duo Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, simply known by their typographically reverberating moniker, Sunn O))), appeals more as a concept than a casual listen.  As their music has a tendency to crawl for upwards of fifteen to thirty minutes with nary a groove or a beat to latch onto.  The blackened concentrations of aural tar that they conjure are meant for complete submergence and little else.  It’s music to drown to, droning ambience that projects inescapable walls of low-end.  At times, Sunn O))) generates nothing more than loud monotonous sludge, (the twenty-five minute Decay 2 (Nihils Maw) from White 2 comes to mind).  Other times, they intrigue.

What Sunn O))) have are aesthetics that exploit a surface simplicity; their gloomy constructs versatile enough to reconsider and repurposeAltar, Sunn O)))’s 2006 collaboration with Japanese drone rockers Boris, revealed adaptability, their ominous swamp of noise pollution malleable enough to arrange and orchestrate into something dimensional while staying true to Sunn O)))’s mission statement.  Their seventh album, Monoliths & Dimensions, present O’Malley and Anderson’s sonic murk as something to delve into, their inescapable walls of low-end suddenly beaming with purpose and a million and one instruments.

With the aid of composer Eyvind Kang, Sunn O))) allow their soundscapes to incorporate various orchestral devices, a veritable sea of uniquely dark and composed possibility.  Their sound is intact, O’Malley and Anderson’s presence still at the very core of the album and necessary for all its maneuverability and musically tiered arrangements.  The album’s personnel are extensive, (Oren Ambarchi, Earth’s Dylan Carlson, Sun Ra alum Julian Priester), and it sounds that way.  Without surveying the roster, you only begin to comprehend the extent of this project as pianos manifest, floating swarms of maddened violins and heightened picks drag across electric guitar strings while sinking quickly into every slight groove, creaking like the disturbance of ancient furniture.  The first song, Aghartha, does all of the above, slowly adding onto one amplified foundation as go-to black metal vocalist, Attila Csihar, speaks his piece as the harbinger of dread.

Aghartha sets somewhat of a precedent, the following Big Church also radiating expansive blackness though the angelic Viennese women’s choir (led by Jessika Kenney) adds grace.  Csihar is overlapped, a chanting seizure and deep throated groan culminating in an indecipherable meditative rambling.  Once the noise hits a peak, a bell sounds and everything goes quiet.  About five seconds elapse and the winding guitar brings it all back.  The choir’s song beautifies the doom.  Near percussive and rhythmic Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia) maintains some semblance of a stride, interrupted by majestic trumpeting and choral intervention.  Waves of synthesizer cut through the mud.

The album’s oddest turn is its closer, an exquisite 16-something minutes entitled, Alice.  Alice, (an apparent ode to Alice Coltrane), is a modernized jazz artifact whose brass, acoustics and guitars seem to pull more from the unlikely songbook of Joe Zawinul and Miles Davis, In A Silent Way-derived melodies taking Monoliths & Dimensions somewhere light, triumphant and hopeful.  Amperage roars underneath the beauty, occupying all focus until you realize what you’re listening to and attempt to retrace when the song transitioned into harp strings, violins and horn.  A perfect example of orchestrated feedback.

As the comments over at Southern Lord’s blog convey a reluctance to associate Sunn O))) with something as historically decimating to metal as “orchestra,” one can understandably assume that cold feet took hold, past instances of “metal meets symphony” having spawned some dire results.  (Axl Rose turned into Elton John for a little while; Metallica ruined some of their best songs with S&M.)  Sunn O)))’s version is an absolute evolution of sound, an exploratory deepening of their perpetual drone.  They never abandon their aesthetic to accommodate new instrumentation, (which should keep the diehards satisfied), nor do they ever reside in their own hefty backdrop.  This is their album, so their’s is the only ego in play.

But, even in spite of their addition of thickening and texturing agents to the mix, Monoliths & Dimensions is for a select crowd.  The only difference now is that Sunn O))) can begin to appeal to the more generalized music fan, and not just their loyal following of metalfeeders content to wallow in the muck.