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A strangely soothing heavy metal band

  • Sunn O)))’s gigs are not like ordinary metal gigs
  • Sunn O)))’s experiments with heavy metal extend to collaborations, and not always with bands that are musically similar

A Sunn O))) concert in Minehead, England, in December 2013. Photo: AFP
A Sunn O))) concert in Minehead, England, in December 2013. Photo: AFP

Heavy metal often gets a bad rap. It’s associated with loud, pounding and prominent bass drums; immense, overpowering guitar riffs; and searing, shrieked vocals that can cause discomfort to some listeners. If you’re not a certified fan of the genre, heavy metal can put you off, for the exact reasons that metalheads find it endearing.

Metal also has stereotypical aspects. Band members and fans tend to look alike: long hair; black leather; and wild head-banging at gigs. But it might be unfair to consider metal a homogenous genre. Ever since the late 1960s, when Britain’s Black Sabbath emerged and influenced legions of heavy metal bands, the genre has been a highly diverse one, spawning countless subgenres too exhaustive to list out.

In one of the nooks of the sprawling genre is a two-decade-old band named Sunn O))), pronounced simply as “sun". Formed in Seattle, it is essentially a duo—Stephen O’Malley (guitar, bass, synthesizers and piano) and Greg Anderson (guitar and bass)—that enlists other musicians and singers for its recordings and gigs. The first encounter with Sunn O)))’s music can be baffling. Their sound is slow, low-frequency and loud.

Let’s look at how slow their music can be. It’s common to start listening to a Sunn O))) track (they are usually long ones) and encounter the first chord change after 3, 4 or even 5 minutes. Fans joke that if you are 20 minutes late for one of their gigs, you may have missed just the first two notes. And how low and loud is their music? Well, the band describes its music as being powerful but ambient. Guitars are tuned low, distortion and feedback spreads slowly like a dark cloud to fill up the soundscape, and sometimes vocals are employed sparingly to add a touch of variation. Percussion is prominently absent—you will likely never hear drums during a set or on an entire album.

Sunn O))) concerts are known for their high volume. So high that attendees have been known to feel their teeth chatter and their bodies vibrate as the sound waves hit them. Yet their music is strangely calming. A dozen years ago, in a long-form profile of the band by the novelist John Wray, Anderson was quoted as saying, “I think low-frequency sound, when played above a certain volume, is very conducive to a meditative state or a trance." I was sceptical when I read that but, then, when I mustered the courage to tentatively tip-toe into Sunn O))) territory—my first listen was the self-released The Grimmrobe Demos—I soon understood what he meant. Sunn O))) make very heavy music but at a glacially slow pace that envelops you gradually and is surprisingly soothing. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the heavy metal community, Sunn O))) are known as the band that subverts the genre like none other.

At their gigs, fog machines blow thick smoke and the members of the band (invited musicians included) are dressed in long dark robes with their heads buried in deep hoods. Quite often, the band’s vocalist of choice is Hungarian-born Attila Csihar, who also sings with other extreme bands. Sunn O)))’s music forms a subgenre of heavy metal that is often labelled drone-doom because it combines the slow, dark sludginess of doom metal with the extended nature of a drone.

Sunn O)))’s gigs are not like ordinary metal gigs. The audience is not homogenous. Some people may come for the novel visual experience of watching robed figures performing in a cloud of smoke; others may want the sheer physical pleasure of being hit by waves of high-volume sound; and yet others may just shut their eyes and let the painstakingly slow music take over their minds.

Early in their career, O’Malley and Anderson figured that their music was probably too avant-garde for the big metal labels to release. So they created their own, Southern Lord, to release not just their albums but also to carefully curate bands that they like: mainly slow-paced doom metal, stoner rock and similar subgenres. The label started modestly but has grown; Sunn O)))’s own career has also taken off. In 2005, their full-length, Black One, became a breakout album, with its shorter songs making it more accessible to first-time listeners. This year, the band will release its eighth studio album, Life Metal. It is produced by Steve Albini, a renowned name in the music industry who famously also produced Nirvana’s In Utero. A sneak preview or trailer of Life Metal is available online, a nearly 5-minute track, deep and heavy but satisfyingly soothing.

Sunn O)))’s experiments with heavy metal extend to collaborations, and not always with bands that are musically similar. The most notable of these is Altar, their album with the Japanese experimental rockers Boris. It’s a fusion of Sunn O)))’s power drone with Boris’ brand of metal: low-tuned guitars but also drums and doses of punk, psychedelia and rock influences. Boris’ drums and guitars seem unlikely partners for Sunn O)))’s percussion-less glacier-slow clouds of feedback and distortion but the combination works quite well, and Altar could be a good entry point to explore the oeuvre of both bands.

Some may find Sunn O)))’s carefully constructed image with the robes and the fog machines a bit contrived. On Black One, one of the songs has vocals by a guest singer that were recorded while he was shut inside a coffin—apparently, the claustrophobia he felt added to the tone of his singing. But because the primordial music they make is singular and the appeal it has extends even to those not usually fond of heavy metal, they are a band worth checking out. Power ambience may just be the thing for you.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.



Five tracks by Sunn O))) to bookend this week

1. ‘Black Wedding’ from the ‘Grimmrobe Demos’

2. ‘Kannon 2’ from ‘Kannon’

3. ‘The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)’ from ‘Altar’ (in collaboration with Boris)

4. ‘Báthory Erzsébet’ from ‘Black One’

5. ‘Alice’ from ‘Monoliths And Dimensions’

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