Experiencing one of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculptures in person can be revelatory. At first glance it can seem cold and imposing, its minimalism a stark contrast to the modern everyday life that skitters around it constantly, but once you investigate it much more closely, or in some cases, walk through the piece, the mood changes instantly. Our sense of space, time, and perspective are instantly altered: the monolith envelops instead of overwhelms, sound reverberates differently, you’re a few feet removed from the hustle-bustle outside yet you feel a thousand miles away from it all. Regarding his artwork, Serra has been quoted as saying, “It lives, it breathes, it implicates you in the space in ways that unless you understand the fact that it’s dense, solid, that it gives you a psychological sense that it’s happening, that you can’t get away from.”
If you’re familiar at all with the music of Sunn O))), you’ll know exactly where I’m going with this. For all the hyperbole of how the duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson so brilliantly deconstruct the classic doom metal guitar riff and meld it with touches of drone, psychedelic, and jazz, forming what they themselves boast as “meditative conceptual and ceremonial content”, the most immediate, visceral effect of this duo’s sound is exactly the same as that of Serra’s sculptural work: creating an undeniable feeling of awe from the most simple material, and evoking a sense of contemplation by ironically overwhelming the listener with what initially feels like the most blunt, physically imposing methods possible.
For some, Sunn O)))’s shtick alone is too much to bear. They play recycled tritone doom metal riffs as slowly as molasses in January, their propensity for LP-only releases is a vinyl geek’s wet dream, they tend to hire vocalists with decidedly evil voices and even resort to recording them from within a closed casket, each release comes with the bold instruction, “MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS”, they take to heavily dry-iced stages wearing monk’s robes. And let’s not forget the silent “O)))”. Hell yeah, Sunn O)) is bombastic and pretentious. So is much of metal music in general, and besides, what’s wrong with a little showmanship? Whether you consider them avant-garde geniuses or hipster-pandering charlatans, there’s no denying when they’re at their best the sheer power of their compositions can be formidable, and their seventh studio album, which fittingly bears a painting by Serra on its cover, sees O’Malley and Anderson in peak form.
With nearly three dozen guest musicians chipping in, the aptly titled Monoliths and Dimensions is far and away the band’s most ambitious project to date, but typically, the many guest contributions are so subtly performed and arranged, not to mention entirely in keeping with O’Malley’s and Anderson’s collective vision, that we hardly notice. That said, the guests do play an increasingly crucial role as the four-track, 53-minute album goes along.
Opening track “Aghartha” kicks off with the kind of monolithic guitar and bass drones from O’Malley and Anderson respectively that we’ve come to expect from them over the years, but it’s not long before the more expansive, atmospheric touches we first heard on 2006’s Altar begin to take over. Longtime collaborator and frontman for black metal legends Mayhem, the ever-enigmatic Attila Csihar contributes a chilling narration to “Aghartha”, reciting apocalyptic visions in his Hungarian-accented growl: “I search for the riddle of clouds / from where a new world shall form / a tunnel gouges in the shapes / of the stream in the great abyss.” All the while, the ensemble cast gradually enters the fray, drone guitar virtuoso Oren Ambarchi on effects, discordant strings and horns screeching, an ominous, resonant piano mirroring O’Malley’s and Anderson’s notes, the song ultimately dissolving into a fanfare of dung chen and conch shells played by the trio of Steve Moore, Stuart Dempster, and jazz great Julian Priester.
“Big Church” incongruously features a Viennese women’s choir juxtaposed with the usual layers of distorted guitars, the arrangement by experimental composer Eyvind Kang melding organ, trumpet, trombone, tubular bells, and viola beautifully, while Csihar turns in a stunning performance, offering multiple layers of esoteric chanting. Conversely, male voices permeate the comparatively blunt “Hunting and Gathering (Cydonia)”, the primary focus this time being the monstrous central riff by O’Malley and Anderson, which sounds shamelessly swiped from Celtic Frost’s early ’80s classic Morbid Tales.
Dedicated to the late Alice Coltrane, the jazz influences on the 16-and-a-half-minute “Alice” are unmistakable (most notably Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way), the lugubriously paced call-and-response between guitars and horns serving as a prelude to the album’s coup de grace, a gorgeous extended trombone solo by Priester that slowly starts to dominate, eventually lingering long after O’Malley and Anderson have faded out. Compared to the black metal-inspired experimentation of 2005’s Black One, it’s as if the sunlight has finally started to crack through the dark clouds once and for all. It’s the single, most beautiful piece of music Sunn O))) has ever created, one that completely strips away all of the band’s pretensions, showing that underneath the grim robes and seemingly impenetrable exterior lurks a heart that, while not exactly mushy, is nevertheless unabashedly full of soul.