Friday, September 25, 2009

Classical drone metal

Although I don't usually write about major label releases, Sunn O)))'s Monoliths and Dimensions blends contemporary classical music with experimental metal with stunning results. Most of the press surrounding the group focuses on their loud and ritualistic concerts, with the group dressed in monk's cowls and the stage filled with fog. Concerts are fine if you live in London or New York, but here in the desert, their recordings are the only evidence one is likely to hear. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson have been the core members since the group's first recording nearly ten years ago, and their albums have relied on an increasing number of guests drawn from other avant-metal groups, such as the Melvins, Earth and Boris. But on Monoliths and Dimensions, they enlist the services of a wide range of creative musicians playing acoustic instruments more commonly associated with the classical world.

Typically classified as drone or doom metal, Sunn O)))'s core is a very loud duet between detuned guitar and bass, playing more or less in unison. The sonic detritus resulting from extremely high volume and the guitar's extraneous noisy artifacts, such as the crunch on the attacks or the inadvertent vibrato resulting from reduced tension on the strings, produces long and deep resonances and interference tones that fill the space with ultra-physical waves of sound. And thus begins Monoliths and Dimensions as well, an instant assault with a deep monophonic riff, gradually accumulating subtle resonance until a brief window ushers the entrance of Attila Csihar's incantatory voice. Impossibly deep, Csihar's gutteral pronouncements seek their own cadence, deviating from normal rhythms until they sound like a new language, intoning the legend of Aghartha, the city at the center of the Earth. The "thunderous resonant clouds" that open Csihar's lyrics gradually are mirrored in the accompaniment even as his delivery remains static. Clusters from strings (violin, viola, two double basses), piano and winds (clarinet, English and French horns) swirl to a "spinning thunderous vortex", when the rock instruments drop out, leaving the music to become dissonant, watery and evanescent. Conch shells and a hydrophone replace the strings and winds, together with the amplified creaking of a rope straining under an unbearable tension.

Although Csihar continues with his intonations on the next two tracks, he is augmented by choirs, female on Big Church and male on Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia). Big Church is highly ritualized, the women wailing incomprehensible syllables while Csihar overdubs several layers of murmuring. Nothing here is intended to be understood, but the lyric sheet provides the single Hungarian compound word associated with deconsecration. Again, brass and strings back up the choir and multiple guitars. Hunting & Gathering uses only brass to supplement the male chorus and Csihar approaching as close to the blues as this album comes. Epic in scope, both of these choral pieces recall the elemental forces of Carmina Burana, adding the electronic feedback which only increases the raw power of the music.

After these two incantatory rituals, the last piece, Alice, is an instrumental affirmation that leads through chaos to an otherworldly calm and peace. Taking a cue here from the spectralist music of Iancu Dumitrescu, the guitar and bass gestures merge with a chamber orchestra comprised of brass (three trombones and French horn), strings (violin, viola, three double basses), winds (oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute) and harp. At first, the chamber orchestra provides spectral overtones for the rock instruments, chords and gestures that start deep and electronic but swelling with the acoustic instruments into mid and upper ranges, reversing the typical resonance where the high notes fade the soonest. Eventually the trombones move to the foreground, providing their own harmony and counterpoint amidst the thickening textures while the rock instruments mark the beginnings of phrases. The final quarter of the piece is for the chamber orchestra alone (apart from Oren Ambarchi's motorized cymbal shimmering in the background), and the piece closes with a beautiful trombone solo from legendary jazz veteran Julian Priester. On its own, Alice is remarkable enough, but in its position on this album, it borders on ecstasy.

Although Monoliths and Dimensions is available as a download from the usual sources, the CD booklet has complete credits and lyrics, essential if you want to understand Csihar's vocalizations. The booklet cover is a translucent overlay on top of a Richard Serra painting, and there are some photos of the group at an Aztec temple and individual cyanotype portraits in primitive, gothic settings.


Richard Lainhart said...

I've never heard them live either, but I'd like to, just for the experience. "Monoliths" is one of my favorite records of the past few weeks.

Here's an interesting juxtaposition - go here:

and start it playing - it's Messiaen's Apparition de l'Église éternelle from 1932.

Wait 30 seconds or so, then go here:

and play Sunn 0)))'s Agharta together with the Messiaen. You may need to turn Agharta a bit to balance the organ. The consonances are surprising.

Caleb Deupree said...

LOL! What a hoot! I won't ask how you came across this....

dp said...

Sorry for commenting on such an old post, but I just wanted to note that Southern Lord (Sunn's label) is not a major label though certainly what they put out is not as obscure as a lot of what you review... (great blog by the way, love it).

Having seen them live I can assure you they are well worth it. Csihar is quite the performer and some of his vocalizations... hard to describe but it doesn't seem like it should be possible for a human to make those sounds.

Hare is Greg Anderson of Sunn on labels:

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi dp, thanks for the comment. The major label remark was tongue-in-cheek, but with the Wire cover and a major push from lots of the independent vendors, including our local record store, it certainly seemed major. Great Anderson interview, thanks also for posting the url.