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Sunn O)))- Monoliths & Dimensions (Album Review)

Sunn 0)))’s Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley began their career as an Earth cover band, and explored the extremes of the low-tuned electric’s guitar’s drone capability at maximum volume on The Grimmrobe Demos. Later albums, such as 2005’s Black One, showed the duo expanding its sonic extremes, engaging a deep love of black metal by adding shrieking, growling vocals by Wrest, as well as additional instruments (like drums) by Oren Ambarchi. Altar, their collaboration with Japanese rockers Boris, provided them with a wider textural and ambient canvas to explore. Their vinyl-only release Dømkirke, recorded in a 100-year-old cathedral in Norway, utilized the building itself as an instrument, where its nooks and crannies echoed back microtones of the band’s own high-powered drones on tape. That said, nothing could have prepared listeners for the wide-ranging adventure that is Monoliths and Dimensions. This 53-minute set contains four tracks. O’Malley and Anderson utilize more guests and collaborators than ever before, including vocalist Attila Csihar, who gives his greatest performance since Mayhem’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas; Ambarchi; Earth’s Dylan Carlson; trombonists such as jazzman Julian Priester and the Deep Listening Band’s Stuart Dempster; trumpeter Cuong Vu; multi-instrumentalist Steve Moore; male and female choirs; other reed and wind players; and violist Eyvind Kang as an arranger. While Sunn 0))) sound exactly like themselves, they seem to approach the music of composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Cage; they utilize the former’s tintinnabuli (three bells) theory as well as engage the latter’s notion of silence as a process.

If all this sounds pretentious, think again about who we’re talking about: the kings of wearing black hooded robes to perform. The set begins with “Aghartha,” full of power drone low-tuned guitars, as one might expect. Slow and plodding for five and a half minutes, it pummels on until Csihar enters in a lower than low yet barely audible voice speaking a long poem about the creation of a new Earth. Priester later enters playing a conch shell, two acoustic double bassists come in on the low end, Ambarchi plays a second electric guitar and effects, a piano sparingly adds both chord and single-note lines, and other horns and reeds flit about the background even as the piece remains unchanging in its focus. “Big Church” is the biggest shock. Commencing with an a cappella female choir, it’s soon intruded upon by four electric guitars; Csihar eventually enters in throat-singing overtone mode, as does a synth, and the tension becomes unbearable before the tune stops in dead silence. Then, bells, an organ, Kang’s viola, and trombone all find their way through the immense space provided by the slow droning yet extremely heavy riffs. Feedback screams in and then the bells enter again before power riffs crush them out. A “man choir” participates on “Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia),” with percussion, a huge Moog Voyager, electric tamboura, and horns amid the droning guitar mayhem slowly penetrating the listener’s skull like a giant worm. By the time the set ends with “Alice,” featuring a trio of trombones, woodwinds, reeds, ambient sounds, enormous guitars, and oscillators, the effect is complete. Monoliths and Dimensions succeeds because it is the sound of a new music formed from the ashen forge of drone, rock, and black metal. In its seemingly impenetrable, slow, spacious, heavy sonic darkness, this is the new way forward for not only Sunn 0))), but for extreme rock music and possibly even what’s left of the avant-garde. Brilliant.