98. Sunn O))), ‘Monoliths & Dimensions’ (2009)

There are people who can lie on their backs and watch clouds all day long. There are also people who appreciate the sound of a humming guitar. I’m both, and I love the next album.

I would be surprised if there were a more experimental album on this list*. Sun O))) is more of a project than a band, consisting of two core members, but bringing in other musicians for shows and recordings. Some notable things about “Monoliths and Dimensions”:

  • This album credits 33 musicians other than core members Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson.
  • It consists of only 4 songs but clocks in at almost 54 minutes.
  • It is almost entirely devoid of percussion, and what percussion it has is not anything you’d call beat-keeping.

As with Evanescence’s “Fallen”, this is also not what I’ve come to expect from metal, but for different reasons. This album reminds me so much more of the work of John Cage, Ben Johnston, or Frank Zappa than it does of Metallica, Obituary, or Venom. It is really fucking out there. Each song includes sort of a basso continuo: a heavily distorted guitar and bass combo playing a slow**, droning, (seemingly) formless, series of ringing notes. I say (seemingly) because over time, these notes coalesce into slow, drifting patterns, like clouds over a the moon at night.

Fittingly, the first track (Aghartha) is a dark mediation on just that —clouds from what I can catch—its not unlike hearing Debussy’s Nocturne, after having been kicked in the junk 30 times and left to die alone. This basso continuo lasts for a little more than 6 minutes before the deep, croaking distinctly Hungarian voice of Atilla Csihar offers the narrative. Slowly the guitar and bass are replaced by screeching strings, brought up so slowly in the mix that the transition isn’t easily detectable. Other instruments fade in an out as well, including piano, some very light percussion, horns, ending with what sounds like the buzzing of flies on a corpse and the tinkle of water. Big Church is a slow, terrifying walk to the executioner. It features choral elements – the voices of women arranged in a series of incredibly tense chords, over some sort of medieval chant, breaks with church bells, and always the slow churn of heavily distorted guitar and bass. Hunting and gathering again features Attila Csihar subterranean rasp, a full chorus used only intermittently, and a horn section pounding dark chords like Vincent Price’s favorite pipe organist. My favorite track is Alice. Over its 16 minute span, dicordant guitars and horns (and eventually scattered woodwinds) eventually find an understanding. In that understanding the only prettiness on the album emerges in slow revelation. The discordance isn’t so much replaced by concordance but becomes it by imperceptible degrees of change. It isn’t unlike sculpture, the form becoming discernible only after all the little unnecessary pieces are knocked away.

*I will be completely surprised by Naked City’s ‘Torture Garden’

**The author tried his best to limit his use of the word “slow” and its variants. Still, look.

Image by Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21586257

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