A Beginner’s Guide to Sunn O)))’s colossal drone
The idea of Sunn O))) is a simple one. That doesn’t mean that the seemingly supernatural mass of sound that the drone-doom duo conjures from their wall of amplifiers is easy to do. Rather, it’s that they don’t complicate their sound with accelerated BPMs or, for that matter, even beats. Their music engulfs the listener in a hefty plume of distortion; it’s overwhelming and soothing all at once, the heaviest thing you’ve ever heard and a kind of music that undermines the very idea of heaviness by letting sound linger in place and drift like vapor. Powerful, yes, but not oppressively so.
Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson founded Sunn O))) in the late ’90s, having previously performed in bands such as Burning Witch, Thorr’s Hammer, Engine Kid and Goatsnake. And as the duo plugged in as Sunn O))) for the first time, the concept is one that they readily admit wasn’t their own. “When we first started the band, it was just Stephen and I getting as high as possible, hooking up as many amplifiers as we could, and emulating the riffs on Earth 2,” Anderson told Bandcamp Daily. Yet soon enough Sunn O))) became something more than a cacophonous jam session, but rather an artful long-term project that’s yielded a long list of excellent records that range from minimal fuzz to more complex and often beautiful art-metal meditations, all delivered by two robed wizards of masterful guitar and bass tone.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s debut, ØØ VOID, so we saw fit to offer a guide to the band’s endlessly expanding discography for those seeing to understand how to wade into this overwhelming catalog of drones, roars, hisses and squeals. Here’s where to start with the Sunn O))) catalog.
(2005; Southern Lord)
This might be oversimplifying things a bit, but when getting started with Sunn O))), there’s really no other first step than Black One. It’s not their best album. It’s not even necessarily their most diverse album. But it’s certainly their most accessible, even digestible, though it’s still a commitment of over an hour. Better put, it’s a horror soundtrack in the form of a rock album, a heavy and immense work of foundation-displacing guitar fuzz whose sounds feel as if they could exorcise literal demons. And three of its tracks even slide under the 10-minute mark! Not that Black One is Sunn O))) doing a Ramones album (covering a Suicide track is probably the closest they’ll ever get to that), but the (comparatively) brisk pacing of its material, combined with the diversity of composition—not to mention the fact that it just sounds incredible—is what makes it a classic. The density of “Orthodox Caveman” is Sunn O))) distilled into 10 minutes—a slow, repetitive growl that’s not so much catchy as it is hypnotic. And the industrial clang of brief opener “Sin Nanna” makes it one of the album’s strongest moments, if one that goes too soon. The real showstopper is “Bathory Erszebet,” the longest track here and the one with the most absurd backstory, featuring vocalist Malefic of Xasthur actually recording his vocals in a coffin—it’s also the slowest burn, and the source of the greatest terror here. (You know, black metal dudes in coffins will do that, I suppose.) It’s as well-rounded as a Sunn O))) album gets.
(2004; Southern Lord)
Sunn O))) have a signature sound, and on White2 it takes up only one of three tracks—the shortest one at that, the amazingly titled “Hell-O)))-Ween,” which showcases the duo’s underrated and seldom revealed sense of humor. (Let’s be real though—if your thing is putting on hooded robes and letting sustained notes ring out until your bones vibrate, you should probably develop a pretty good sense of humor.) “Hell-O)))-Ween” is, of course, expectedly massive. But it’s not what makes White2 interesting. Recorded in the same sessions that yielded 2003’s White1—which included more prominent use of synthesizers than in any of their recording sessions since—this second half of this idiosyncratic pair of releases is at its most interesting and revelatory when the low-end is gone. Anderson and O’Malley drift into space on “bassAliens,” an eerie venture into the far corners of the galaxy with an assist from Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly.” It feels like a work of jazz fusion as much as drone, and it’s breathtaking. “Decay2 [Nihils’ Maw]” is more spiritual in its ritual chants and midrange drone, the overall effect feeling like a sacred ritual rather than a metal track or an exercise in ambient composition. That White2 isn’t one of the first records mentioned in the group’s most essential works feels off to me—it’s by far one of their most stylistically diverse—a successful series of experiments well outside the norm for an ostensibly experimental duo.
Monoliths and Dimensions
(2009; Southern Lord)
This is Sunn O)))’s best album, their masterpiece—the album that revealed the breadth of their work and the transcendent beauty therein. Yet I decided against putting Monoliths and Dimensions first in the lineup here, as I think it’s important to understand Sunn O)))’s musical and spiritual essence before diving into the album that blows those possibilities wide open. While Black One established a proof of concept for the duo as well as featuring some of their strongest material, and White2 showed how well that translated to more experimental material, Monoliths and Dimensions finds them in pursuit of more elegant compositions and arrangements, as well as more gorgeously spiritual journeys. Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar plays a major role here, his sinister croak appearing in three of the album’s expansive tracks, his presence less like that of a singer than a narrator. He almost becomes part of the scenery, a subliminally intertwined piece of the group’s complex machinery rather than its engineer. Naturally, the tracks in which he appears are the album’s darkest and most harrowing. Though “Agharta” opens with the purest distillation of Sunn O)))’s atmospheric haze, over the course of its 17 minutes it slowly transforms into a gauntlet of horrors, shaking, rattling and growing more claustrophobic in its subtly expanding cacophony. “Big Church [megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]”, whose parenthetical title is the longest word in the Hungarian language, is even more terrifying. Though there’s an element of the sacred, the choral element is unearthly and unnerving, a demonic chant fit for a supernatural event. Yet “Alice” is an entirely different situation altogether. Named for jazz legend Alice Coltrane, who had died not long before the group began work on the album, “Alice” trades terror for a spiritual ethereality. It’s elegiac, but more than that it’s warm and harmonic in a way that the previous three tracks aren’t (though they are absolutely stunning). Here, O’Malley and Anderson find their core drone paired with horns and strings, lending a beautifully orchestral touch to an otherwise more meditative piece. It shares more in common with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening than any actual metal album, and for that matter, it’s a recording that most certainly does reward deep listening. Or perhaps just being in the stillness of the moment.
Soused (with Scott Walker)
Black One is the Sunn O))) album that comes closest to having the structure and pacing of a more conventional rock album, if not the actual sound of one. But Soused is the one that emphasizes songwriting over soundscapes—kind of. A full-length collaboration with late avant garde crooner Scott Walker, Soused carries the recognizable drone and haze of a Sunn O))) album, layered with and housed in all manner of other strange effects—atonal saxophone squeals, whip cracks, unsettling background moans, clanging pipes, and any number of sounds likely to keep you up at night. So of course Sunn O))) and Scott Walker make for natural collaborators, each artist’s approach complementing the other seamlessly; Walker’s operatic art-rock feels more urgent when backed by the group’s massive guitar growl, Sunn O)))’s atmospheric doom becomes more urgent and terrifying when structured into horrific dirges. This might all undersell how badass the paranoiac soundclash is at times, however. Leadoff track “Brando” has actual riffs! Riffs that sound a little like “Sweet Child O’ Mine!” (That was unexpected.) “Bull” crashes and roars with proper heavy metal power. Though it’s in a track like “Lullaby” where the imagined ideal of what a Sunn O)))/Scott Walker collaboration comes to fruition exactly as you might imagine it—in a rush of dissonant horror-flick synths and chilling doom riffs—and it’s every bit as amazing as expected.
(2019; Southern Lord)
Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have made a fairly minimalist idea of heavy, extended guitar drones go a really long way—long enough to necessitate this discographical roadmap, of course. But it’s remarkable how much diversity there is within that fairly simple idea. The four preceding albums all represent completely different ideas of what a Sunn O))) album is, from their choice of collaborators to the degree which other sounds and textures begin to play an even more prominent role. Life Metal is simpler, in a manner of speaking. It’s a more pure distillation of Sunn O)))’s awe-inspiring albeit hypnotic sound in four lengthy pieces. It’s a 70-minute album, so anyone who might have expected this to be a breezier entrypoint would be mistaken. But the Steve Albini-recorded four-track collection best captures the sheer grace of the band’s instrumentals. The title might be a play on words, but it also a pretty accurate representation of the light and beauty that emanates from each extended piece. The inclusion of a pipe organ feels more like a trip to church than “Big Church” did (considering it sounds more like the opening of the staircase to hell). The vocal contribution from Hildur Guðnadóttir on “Between Sleipnir’s Breaths” incorporates a touch of ethereal beauty. And the simultaneous intensity and ambience of “Novae” is an experience beyond mere listening. It’s something more, something spiritual.
Also Recommended: After taking the journey through these five albums, it’s not a bad idea to go back to the beginning and soak in the fuzz and feedback of ØØ VOID, the duo’s debut. Though not quite as refined as the albums to come, its drones are still voluminous and bone-chilling. Next, take in the more diverse and spacious offerings on the group’s 2006 collaboration with Boris, Altar, which leans at times more toward dreamy ambience and at times toward Boris’ own stoner-rock thunder. And for the live experience of Sunn O))) at their most intensely spooky, seek out Dømkirke, recorded live in a church in Bergen, with organ, trombone, synth and sufficiently unsettling vocal performances.
Advanced Listening: Why not go back even earlier, before the official beginning? The Grimmrobe Demos have been available from the band for quite some time, an actual set of demos recorded in the late ’90s before the duo had officially released their first album. It’s remarkable to think this was only a couple years after Greg Anderson was in the post-hardcore band Engine Kid. Then make the trip back to the present and queue up Pyroclasts, the companion album to last year’s Life Metal. Recorded during the same sessions, it has a similarly powerful and meditative quality, if slightly more abrasive. These are all matters of degree, but the more you hear of Sunn O))), the wider the distance between those degrees seems.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.
Also I recommend The Peel Sessions, where late John Peel share his first time impressions about having the band perform in front of him.