Sunn O))): “We’re really geeks for music.” Interview by Adam D Mills

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It’s an established fact that those who most pride themselves on being open-minded can often be found to be nursing the most bigoted of attitudes. Take, for example, one recent contributor to the letters page of avant/experimental bible The Wire (which, for all its high-brow bluster can at times be as bitchy and petulant as the news.com.au comments section). This fellow took particular issue with the magazine’ recent championing of “Doom, Black and new “avant’s Metal, and [their]grim attempt to make this genre appear as a new form of experimental music (I admit I was truly annihilated when I saw the idiot posers known as Sunn O))) on your cover). Thankfully, as a 57 year old music lover, I know exactly what this is all about – it is no more than a mere commercial trend.”

The writer of that acerbic barb (who then went on to hurl lavish – one might even say gushing – praise in the direction of Italian space-noodlers My Cat is an Alien) obviously hasn’ listened to Monoliths & Dimensions, the seventh Sunn O))) opus and their most earth-shaking recorded work yet. To write them off as “a mere commercial trend” is laughable: yes, they’re part of a movement that has, in recent times, enjoyed a massive upswing in popularity, but that doesn’ negate the artistic value of their music.

The group’ core duo’ roots may lie in metal (Greg Anderson could once be found playing guitar in doomlords Goatsnake, while Stephen O’Malley was a member of the paradigm-shifting mindfuck that was Burning Witch) but Sunn O)))’ heart has always lain with the avant-garde. Since drafting in Japanese noise kingpin Merzbow to add an extra layer of disruption to their third album Flight of the Behemoth, they’ve worked with a veritable who’ who of modern experimental and outsider music, from raconteur Julian Cope and audio terrorist John Wiese to black metal misanthropes Malefic and Wrest (of Xasthur and Leviathan, respectively).

And so it is with Monoliths & Dimensions, which features no less than 31 additional musicians, including a Parisian women’ choir, brass and wind ensembles, trombonists Steve Moore, Julian Priester and Stuart Dempster, as well as contributions from longtime Sunn O))) alumni Oren Ambarchi, Attila Csihar, Rex Ritter and Joe Preston.

Orchestrating this enormous cast of collaborators was composer Eyvind Kang, who in the past has worked alongside the likes of John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Mike Patton. Kang’ involvement in the album came about as a result of his relationship with engineers Randall Dunn, who works with Sunn O))) as their live engineer.

“He was perfect for what we were looking for,” says Anderson of Kang. “[It was] how he wanted to approach this that really clicked with us. He is definitely likeminded, and was coming at it from more of an abstract or avant-garde angle. We didn’ want it to sound tacked on or cheesy, like Metallica jamming with the San Francisco symphony or whatever. We wanted to expand the sound, and we wanted it to complement the sound in an appropriate way that wasn’ tacky.”

They succeeded. Monoliths & Dimensions comes off as a near-perfect distillation of Sunn O)))’ volume junkie tendencies and their long-held but heretofore unexplored interests in modern classical and jazz: the supermassive chords of ‘Aghartha’ are given grim resonance by the addition of a stately horn section; ‘Big Church’ is haunted by a ghostly choir led by Persian vocal savant Jessika Kenney; ‘Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)’ slows the blackest of metal to a crawl, over which Csihar again proves why he’ one of the most well-regarded vocalists in the world of extreme music; and closer ‘Alice’ (dedicated to the late, great Alice Coltrane) is a symphonic movement that nods to both the micropolyphony of György Ligeti and the spectralism of Iancu Dumitrescu and Gérard Grisey.

“I think the music is a fusion of a lot of different styles, and different theories and concepts,” comments Anderson. “To me, the record is really rich; it’s not just Sunn O)))’ modern classical record, it’s not Sunn O)))’ jazz fusion record. It’s hard for me to comment on how to classify or pin down what the sound really is, because… I think it defies and goes beyond any standard or orthodox classification. But yeah, we are interested in modern classical, and we are interested in spectral music, and those concepts definitely were an inspiration on the record. There are a lot of different inspirations for the record – we’re just as much into Celtic Frost and Entombed as we are Dumitrescu and Grisey, or Miles Davis.”

“The one thing that really unites all of us as individuals is we’re all huge music fans,” he continues. “We’re really geeks for music, and we’re constantly interested in discovering new music or discovering artists from different eras. Getting turned onto those different musicians and artists, and also turning each other onto it. It’s almost like there’s a continual record exchange happening at our sessions, Oren wanting to turn us onto something that he’ really into, or me wanting to turn Stephen and Oren or Attila onto something, or whatever. And I think that definitely is bleeding through into the music. I think that’s potentially why a lot of people are saying that this is the most listenable Sunn O))) record. Some people have described it as “accessible’ – I prefer to hear it called listenable, personally. And it’s because it’s not only embracing different styles of music, but there’ a lot more depth emotionally to this record.”

Surprisingly, Anderson says that he and O’Malley had only the vaguest idea about the album they wanted to make when they initially set about recording Monoliths & Dimensions. “We just had some ideas of things that we wanted to try and challenges that we wanted to undertake,” he says. “We sat down and talked about a couple of things. For example, we wanted to work with more acoustic instrumentation – brass, choirs, woodwinds. And the other concept that we had was to try to attempt to capture some of the live stuff we’ve done in the last couple of years. We’d had some really unique and special performances and some really great music had come out of those and we were hoping that we could capture some of that on tape.”

“That, to me, is part of the joy of playing in this group: a lot of times the sound that comes out on the other end is a lot of times completely different from what you think it might be. I really like that element of surprise. It really keeps things fresh and also makes it so that you stay on your toes.”

Monoliths & Dimensions took longer to complete than any Sunn O))) record to date – much, much longer. Two whole years were dedicated to the careful crafting of the album; time that Anderson says (and anyone who hears the record will likely agree) was well spent.

“We really took our time because we wanted it to be fleshed out completely, and we wanted to be one hundred percent satisfied with it,” he says. “With some of our other records though, there hasn’ been a time crunch on it, it has been a lot more in the moment. Like, “Let’s get this out while it’s feeling fresh.’ Whereas this one we felt needed more time to breathe and to develop. We felt some of the pieces needed more layers and more textures added to them to make it so that we felt that the piece was finished.”

An additional challenge to the making of the album was thrown up by the project’s scale, and the reality of working with so many additional layers. “A lot of the challenge was in the mixing, trying to get the strings and guitars to blend and sound natural, rather than make it sound tacked on or cheesy,” Anderson explains. “That was the real challenge. To me, the tracking of all the extra instrumentation was really an enjoyable process. It was really exciting to think about how it would turn out later. But basically we’d save all the hard work for later, when you’re actually putting it together. One of the problems that happened with this record was that there was so much amazing stuff tracked – hours and hours of great material – and then trying to pick the best moments and come up with an album that sounds cohesive and concise amongst all this tracking.”

Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions is available from Southern Lord Records

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