The advance listening sessions for Monoliths & Dimensions, the new Sunn O))) album (and 7th in ten years), couldn’t have fallen on a better day: a desolate and bleak Friday, the sky a monolithic gray, an oppressive drizzle drubbing down. We could’ve been in Seattle, the former hometown for Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s art project-cum-heavy metal machine music outfit. Nevermind that O’Malley now calls Paris home, while Anderson and clan reside in the climes of L.A.: the rainy northwest remains their locus solus. Most of M&D was tracked there, and the group drew heavily from local players, from the arrangements of composer Eyvind Kang to the music conservatory connections of Earth’s Steve Moore, who in turn brought aboard such players as Stuart Dempster (who has been commissioned by John Cage and the Deep Listening projects of Pauline Oliveros) and Julian Priester (brassman with Sun Ra and in Herbie Hancock’s seventies sextant).
“It’s spanning generations now with this record. Those guys are old-timers, in their 70s,” remarks O’Malley, when we caught up with him and Anderson after the session. The new group of musicians, he noted, are far afield of “metal” and its trappings. “They’ve been making experimental free music since the 60s. It’s cool to feel you are part of this longer tradition by having these guys involved.” Add to the core ensemble such luminaries as Hungarian growler Attila Csihar and Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi, and these days Sunn, not only bridges generations, but whole continents.
Good thing the music is massive enough to hold such weight. On nomenclature alone, the band fully plumbs its jazz and group ensemble roots. The title itself mimics a Sun Ra album (Monorails & Satellites) and the opening number, “Aghartha,” namechecks one of those amoebic, roiling, abyss-staring Miles Davis live albums from the mid-70s. That telltale bowel-tickling “draaaang” and drone of the band opens the album, only to part midway through to let in Attila’s growl of “I search for the riddle of clouds,” with eerie foghorn sounds and atonal strings (scored by O’Malley and Randall Dunn) making the massive track feel like some ghost ship, at once pitch-black and luminous.
When I ask Anderson what his baby daughter likes in his record collection, he grins: “What she really likes is a lot of jazz. I’ve been playing a lot of Eric Klaus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, she likes a lot of that. She likes Chick Corea records.” And if his Miles Davis tee shirt doesn’t drive that point home, then “Big Church” (a play on Live-Evil track “Little Church”) does. There are differences, obviously–rather than build upon a chug of tarry guitars, an Austrian female choir sets the track’s tone.
As the disc progresses, perceptions change. Where one expects guitar chords, horns intone instead. I tell O’Malley that instead of the slab (which their previous efforts have always evoked, and which their new album’s cover art, culled from a Richard Serra painting, seem to reinforce) there are instances when it’s revealed to be a scrim instead, startling in its spacing and transparency. He states that the disc’s intent was to couple their telltale sound with “the integration of acoustic instruments,” citing the work of current French “spectralist” composers who deploy computers to exact acoustic timbres, composing backwards, as it were. The results play with the listeners’ perceptions and the illusion of sound.
On the closing “Alice,” such notions come to a head. “Steve, Oren, and I are really into Alice Coltrane,” says Anderson breaking down the process: “So let’s challenge ourselves to make a track that is inspired and influenced by her, let’s challenge ourselves to not create a track that is not 25 amplifiers and cabinets to 10. Let’s create something that breathes, that has space and silences.” And amid the pulsing crush that remains Sunn’s métier, odd timbres blossom, with harp and flute arising at the track’s climax. Suddenly, heaviness becomes lightness. One startled critic, upon reaching disc’s end, quips: “The silence is overwhelming now.”