AVANT-GARDE IS ONE THING. INNOVATION IS ONE THING. EXPERIMENTATION IS ONE THING

Francesco Farabegoli

from NERO n.13 february/march 2007

To lean a guitar in front of an insanely big amp with a volume output above and beyond human listening capabilities has got no business with any of the above three.
This is a way of making music that clearly references its predecessors: landmarks in the history of rock music, who defined its aesthetic codes. Thus it is a little strange to see a project like Sunn O))) elbowing its way to the forefront of contemporary rock music only to become its main compositional an executional vanguard. Sunn O)))’s main feature is their great simplicity: they take an intense and non-commercially exploited sound, and rewrite it with minimal variations in gigantic letters.
Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s band, however, escape their ideological premises almost immediately in order to inhabit a gray area of extreme metal that simply was waiting for occupants.

The minds behind Sunn O))) are two musicians, mostly from a doom metal background. The first member is Stephen O’Malley, whom in the past was in the US band Burning Witch, which in turn was born from the ashes of Thorr’s Hammer; both bands devoted to the sacred verb of the most malignant doom/stoner/sludge, successful disciples of the early Cathedral/Eyehategod axis and all its undertones. The second member is the founder and regent of the Southern Lord label, and leader of the band Goatsnake (with whom he enjoyed a discrete success in times of stoner rock hype); he is also O’Malley’s partner in infinite other bands.
However, Compared to all of the above projects, Sunn O))) was very different right from the start. In all probability it is the result of Anderson’s undying love for the most glorious chapter of the Earth saga: Sunn O))) penetrate deeply into the cult Carlson’s band by pedantically repeating its Earth2 prototype and giving it a “hyper-metal” aesthetic: which is basically a casual reiteration of signs over a pre-existing format, rather than an ideological diktat.
If Anderson is the primary sound-maker, at least at first glance, it is O’Malley who immediately gives the project its unique non-musical connotations. A highly rated graphic designer (you can admire his work on his own site, www.ideologic.org), and generally refined image-maker, he is the main reason for Sunn O)))’s popularity with non-metal audiences. Either way, the bond between the two artists does not imply that Sunn O))) is an isolated unit: their practice is assisted by a high number of influences that include main protagonists of contemporary music as much as singers from obscure black metal bands; It’s a matter of credibility: anything that Sunn O))) touches, turns straight into gold.

Sunn O)))’s discographic saga begins somewhat laterally with the GrimmRobe Demos: a compilation of doom metal drones straight out of Dylan Carlson’s “junkie” phase that sounds more like a tribute-based side project than a proper album. It is with the next album, 00Void that Sunn O))) (while still spawning from the Earth-monster) present themselves with a clearer and better defined musical identity: long and incessant, at times ambient, apocalyptic drones moving at a dark, malignant speed. Here O’Malley’s cover art is crucial in defining the mood: images rendered black on dark grey and vice versa, funereal and decadent post-rock snapshots. With 00Void and the following Flight Of The Behemoth (the former released on their pal Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label, and re-released on Southern Lord along with the latter), Sunn O)))’s music gains the support of the more open-minded black metal/doom aficionados: music for the end of time and space, tortuous adventures at the end of the audible spectrum, and so on. The scenario in which this music emerged is also determining: while Dylan Carlson’s practice was relatively ostracized in his time, at the dawn of the 00s it was clear that slowness would be the new frontier for extreme metal. Though Anderson and O’Malley’s innovation is merely incremental: not slowness anymore, but stillness. Sunn O)))’s music starts getting mentioned among higher circles in reference to a promising future: the first half hour of the third album (2003) sees the two accompanied by Julian Cope in one of his career’s most accomplished ramblings; this and further events will bring Sunn O))) to be an ideal bridge between the Touch-school of drone avant-gardists like Oren Ambarchi (now a permanent collaborator and also in Burial Chamber - an ongoing side project with O’Malley and another Sunn O))) cohort, Attila Csihar) and any mentionable fringe of extreme metal (even hardcore detractors can’t deny the music’s accentuated negativity).
This approach is not dissimilar from John Zorn’s jazz-thrash dialogue in his Naked City/Painkiller times, although less academic and more open. It is a matter of details, or graphic appearance. It’s doubtless that the large appeal O’Malley’s graphics is largely due to Sunn O)))’s strong influence in contemporary rock.
However, the band’s glorious saga seems to be slowing down after their masterpiece White1. This album probably represents the band pushing their innovations to their limits: having reached pure drone, guests are invited to bring small (and, as in the other records, irrelevant) incremental innovations, which are destined to succumb in the band’s magma of pure electrity. From White2 to Black One, to their first collaboration with Boris, there are clear signals of scarce connectivity to a now unmanageable flux of sound; a flux that, in the first case is subjected to an “ambient” makeover in which the sound becomes tame - an operation of bad faith in order to recruit new converts and give longevity to a fast-aging sound (which is the fate of any extremism) - and subsequently becomes convoluted - in additional bad faith - in a cloud of satanic riffs punctuated by the screams of Malefic and friends. All of this is a little irrelevant within a general discourse that could have easily embraced all of Music but is now only preaching for itself. Either way, there seems to be a change with the release of Altar, probably Sunn O)))’s most successful collaboration to this day, which involves Boris and a bunch of other guests ( a resurrected Kim Thayil, for instance); and even more on its bonus disc, which features the first joint venture with the master Dylan Carlson (whom in turn reinvents the band’s malignant and lacerated approach in a western format, the results even more acid than his Hex album). This seems like the perfect balance: it would be a good starting point to rebuild a path of coherence, rather than a mass of theoretical masturbations that don’t apply too well to the project.
On the other hand, the band’s live approach remains unchanged and it’s still the definitive confirmation of the size of Sunn O)))’s project. One can see them on stage: spooky hooded figures in groups of two to five elements, playing one infinite metallic drone that lowers its tone within the hour to a pure vibration, at a volume that will squeeze your dinner out of your bowels. Most people who experience this seem to be bothered and/or upset: it is a basic and involving experience, in a way a little “cheap”, but never the less extremely “metallic” (in a “look who’s got the biggest dick” way), and excessive even to an expert ear. It’s within this love/hate that they seem to be on everyone’s mind as the “thing” that’s happening to rock music, par excellence.