Since their late ’90s formation in Seattle, Washington, Sunn O))) have created a towering sound combining elements of drone, metal, minimalism, and maximum volume. Founders Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley have opened the gates to a wide selection of genres that mix well together and invite heavy strains of experimentation.
While Anderson and O’Malley are the group’s core members, many other musicians have appeared on their excellent run of releases, including frequent collaborators Oren Ambarchi and Steve Moore. They have also teamed up on collaborative recordings with the likes of Japanese metal mutilators Boris, experimental godheads Nurse With Wound, and spooky avant-crooner Scott Walker.
Many of the group’s releases evoke a dark, devastating sound. Not a punch in the gut, but an unexplainable blow to your senses. Listen to their albums loud and your innards will feel like they are pushing themselves apart. You will hear new sounds you haven’t experienced before. Drones and feedback play simultaneously, while being controlled in a weirdly melodic flow. Electronics sound like a malfunctioning robot, while the vocals croak like the harbinger of death. Pretty fun stuff!
Anderson and O’Malley also run record labels (Southern Lord and Ideologic Organ, respectively), collaborate with countless other musicians, design album art, and keep busy with a multitude of projects. It would take a lifetime to list everything, so this piece will serve as a primer on the standout releases to dive into their wonderfully extensive catalogue. We’ve included links to their albums on the Sunn O))) Bandcamp for your listening and purchasing pleasure.
The Grimmrobe Demos
Released in 2000 on Hydra Head Noise Industries, then reissued by Southern Lord in 2003, this is Sunn O))) in a bare-bones setting. Heavy guitar drones are at the forefront, grinding away like a slow-motion buzzsaw, while electronic whirrs and intergalactic wind noises breeze by. It’s a great way to begin and understand the evolution of the duo.
This album, also from the year 2000, includes the following instruction: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS” ØØVOID is a truly intense listening experience, and the suggestion should definitely be taken seriously. Hearing its songs in a live setting, with the group’s cloaks, fog machines, and the volume at an ear-shattering level, would be the experience of a lifetime. The guitars sound like they are creeping out of a watery swamp, from an ambient drone to a gigantic chunky strum, whining into a slow feedback and back to the guitar. Once you get past the doom and inevitable gloom, it is also a somewhat relaxing listen on low volume while getting some work done.
One of the darkest albums ever recorded, Black One is a soul crushing listen that sounds like it was made beyond the grave. If this were played outside of your house during Halloween, you probably wouldn’t get many visitors. Sunn O))) were clearly aiming for this angle, as they recorded black metal vocalist Malefic from the inside of a casket for the 15-minute closer “Báthory Erzsébet.” “Cursed Realms (of the Winterdemons)” is a screeching mess of electronics and the sharp growl of guitars ripping into a howling void.
Monoliths and Dimensions
This jam packed 2009 release is definitely one of the group’s most ambitious efforts. A good starting point for someone to find out what all of this is about. Monoliths and Dimensions combines the Sunn O))) style of heavy guitar drones with the terrifying vocal stylings of Attila Csihar from Mayhem, a Persian women’s choir, arrangements from composer Eyvind Kang, Dylan Carson from sludge titans Earth, and so much more. It can be ranked as one of the most uniquely beautiful and intense listens of all time. Every single element is perfectly placed, while managing to sound destructive and post-apocalyptic. Closer “Alice” has horns blazing, giving the listener the sense they make made it out of a dark void of devastation. Well, until the next album pulls you back in!
Scott Walker and Sunn O))) – Soused
After his more avant-garde releases The Drift and Bish Bosch, it made sense for Scott Walker to collaborate with Sunn O))). This album combines both of their creative styles into one big blob of insanely powerful sound. The crooner touches lightly on his ’60s roots while delving deeper into the eccentric and nightmarish soil with whips cracking, glorious riffs creeping in, and the group’s signature sludge guitar growl. The pacing is akin to working away as a bladesmith in the old times, then winding to a screeching halt, so Walker can build the intensity right back up again.
The latest Sunn O))) album, Kannon, is available from Southern Lord as well as their Bandcamp page on December 4th. Kannon has been described as the most “metal” album they have released, although the sound is so specific that it can be hard to categorize. The riffs are bold, and the controlled feedback blends well into the mould. It wouldn’t be complete without some haunting vocals aching into the foreground, again by Attila Csihar. Frequent collaborators Oren Ambarchi, Rex Ritter, and Steve Moore also make appearances.
For this album, Sunn O))) commissioned critical theorist Aliza Shvartz to write text/liner notes around the literal representation of Kannon, an aspect of Buddha. Specifically, the “goddess of mercy” or “Perceiving the Sounds (or Cries) of the World.” They also commissioned Swiss designer/artist Angela LaFont Bollinger to create the album’s artwork, an abstracted sculpture of the vision of Kannon.
Kannon compiles many of the duo’s manifestations, while also revealing a more accessible version of their sound, polishing their past traditions. They still have experimental components, and continue to create challenging, interesting music, exploring the outer limits of their particular sound. As the years pass, Sunn O))) are simply burning brighter.