Sunn O))) is a difficult band to talk about. For more than a decade the duo has been at the forefront of the drone doom music scene, and whether you like them or not, they're usually the first name you think of when the topic arises. Members Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have always been open to trying new things with Sunn (the O))) is silent), so their discography is fairly varied. Despite that fact, it is on the 2005 album Black One that listeners will find what most people consider the definitive Sunn O))) sound: shrill, black metal-influenced distortion, notes extending far beyond any sane duration, and a fearsome low-end rumble. I never enjoyed Black One, and I've heard it a few times. It didn't seem too weird for me - I'm used to noise and experimental music - but it failed interest me. I share the opinion of many Sunn critics; that Earth did the same thing first, and better.
I don't know why I tried out Monoliths & Dimensions, Sunn O)))'s seventh album. The fact that people were declaring it "best album of 2009" didn't pique my interest. I had resigned myself to the fact that the music just wasn't for me. Little did I know that even before hearing the entire album, I'd be joining the ones praising it, so quickly did it prove itself as something different.
Perhaps it's the number of collaborators that set Monoliths & Dimensions apart from the other Sunn O))) albums I've heard. It is true that one of my favourite albums is Altar, the collaborative project by Sunn O))), Boris, Dylan Carlson, Joe Preston, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, and others. M&D features a similarly impressive group of musicians, including Jessika Kenney, composer and violinist Eyvind Kang (who has worked with Mr. Bungle and Animal Collective), noise and drone music artist Oren Ambarchi, Mayhem singer and frequent Sunn O))) guest vocalist Attila Csihar, and the eminent founder and guitarist of Earth, Dylan Carlson.
Monoliths & Dimensions is made up of just four songs, though in the typical drone doom tradition, the song lengths are considerable.
1. Aghartha (17:34)
2. Big Church (megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért) (9:43)
3. Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia) (10:02)
4. Alice (16:21)
Aghartha starts out like a blank slate; a basic drone doom template reminiscent of what the Melvins were trying out on Lysol back in 1992. Downtuned guitars groan a handful of mean-sounding chords that stretch on unchanging for 16 seconds at the shortest. After a sufficient length of time has passed to prep the listener's brain, the song really starts, and it's creepy. Attila Csihar has low voice and a heavy Hungarian accent, and on the live album Dømkirke you can really hear him howl, but Aghartha is a spoken word piece. Trying to puzzle out the words through his accent and the accompanying rumbling is a chore, but it becomes gradually easier as the music changes. What starts out as an oppressive assault eventually peters out into brass horns whining and wavering, and ominous wooden creaking sounds. By the end, all that remains is the splashing of gentle waves on a shore and Csihar's sinister discourse, now so prominent that every minuscule detail of his voice is amplified to an uncomfortable degree.
Big Church begins with a Viennese women's choir led by Jessika Kenney, whose operatic vocals were the highlight of Wolves In The Throne Room's Two Hunters album. The choir's voices swell and pierce without accompaniment, until Stephen O'Malley revs his guitar like a car engine and begins another droning base to build the song on. The choir comes back in, slower this time. Listening to this while driving through the high dynamite-blasted granite walls of the Canadian Shield reminded me of the opening of The Shining, with Dies Irae intoning over the Torrences' car. Attila comes back in, and you hear his voice overdubbing itself, reciting the ridiculous subtitle to the song at two different speeds of chanting. I imagine it would be only slightly less disorienting if you understood Hungarian.
The third track also has vocals, though again, they're in Hungarian. The guitars on this one flow in a dull chopping motion, and the brass instruments return to sound out in demonic fanfare. There isn't anything particularly exciting about this track; ignore the horns and it's almost a return to form for the band. It does serve an important purpose though: setting up the final track. I don't think Sunn O)) has ever done something so quiet or peaceful as the fourth song on Monoliths & Dimensions, entitled Alice. Aghartha would count, if the frontman for the most notorious black metal band in the world wasn't whispering in your ear the whole time. Alice is almost as long as Aghartha, but feels much shorter because the time isn't spent mired in severe depression or nausea (normal reactions to Sunn O))) music). The droning electric guitars that define the subgenre actually vanish in the last few minutes, giving way to glittery harpstrings and weak, fluttering horns. The good feeling it leaves you with is utterly alien and unexpected.
Monoliths & Dimensions has attracted a number of listeners who, like myself, never thought they would be caught enjoying a Sunn O))) album. Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have reason to be proud. I'm not the best person to ask about their work, with the large gaps in my Sunn O))) listening experience, but this is a respectable album that I continue to find pleasure in long after the initial surprise wore off.
Sunn O))) - Monoliths & Dimensions - 2009 - Southern Lord Records