Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions
Southern Lord

Before playing Sunn O)))'s seventh studio album, Monoliths & Dimensions, I braced myself for an hour-long sludgefest of guitar-heavy distortion (after all, the band's name was inspired by the Sunn brand of amplifiers) but then quickly revised my expectations after a perusal of the booklet details. With the core guitar duo of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson augmented by Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi, renowned trombonist Julian Priester (Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock), Dylan Carlson (Earth), Stuart Dempster, and Eyvind Kang (John Zorn, Bill Frisell), and with upright bassists, French and English horns, harp, flute, piano, brass, reeds, strings, and a Viennese woman's choir supplementing the core guitar arsenal, how could the album be anything but a compositionally rich symphonic mosaic? As it turns out, the album's material straddles both worlds, with four long settings encompassing both ends of the spectrum, sometimes within a single piece.

Molten guitars smolder in the curdling opening “Aghartha,” for example, just as one might expect, and the performance of Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar is more a deathly, guttural growl than anything remotely resembling conventional singing. But listen closely and you'll hear a deep drone swelling in the background assembled from an eclectic instrumental array of hydrophone, conch shell, double bass, horns, strings, and clarinet. Up next, “Big Church” (aka the unpronounceable “[megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]”) couples blistering slabs by a four-guitar front-line with the women's choir and tubular bells, while the nightmarish “Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)” largely restricts its focus to guitar snarl and Csihar's unearthly throat-singing and consequently finds the album at its deathliest. The album's most impressive track, the closing instrumental “Alice,” spreads doom-laden chords thick and fast (slow, actually) before horns push the windows open to allow the more delicate sounds of oboe, English horn, harp, and strings to shine like so much daylight. The transition from dark to light occurs so gradually you might miss it, until you suddenly realize the guitars have vanished, leaving little more than a trombone and harp to carry on in their absence.

Is the material occasionally pompous and overblown? How could it be otherwise with lyrics like “Thunderous resonant sounds call from beyond the depths / And the winds of gravity change / In memories of the consciousness of the ancient rocks / Nature's answer to the eternal question” (Aghartha”), and when the group members persist in presenting themselves in monk-like robes? Even so, to Sunn O)))'s credit, Monoliths & Dimensions isn't simply heavy guitar-slinging backed by choir singing and a mini-orchestra. Rather O'Malley and Anderson weave the sound materials into integrated wholes, with the duo's guitar playing but one component (albeit a major one) within a grander mass.

July 2009