There may have been stranger successes in popular music, but you have to admit there's something exceptionally peculiar about the ascendency of drone/doom/ambient metal band Sunn O))). In the last few years, Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley's project has been the subject of countless articles in major international newspapers, magazines, and websites, including two lengthy pieces in The New York Times. Not bad for a couple of guys who dress up in robes to play slow-motion riffs that hit an ear-damaging 130 decibels in a live setting.
"I'm constantly surprised that people are into our music," Anderson says from the Los Angeles offices of Southern Lord, the avant-metal label through which he releases Sunn O)))'s albums, including this year's critically acclaimed seventh official full-length, Monoliths and Dimensions. "It's challenging, and it requires an attention span and patience to get absorbed in it for it to work like it's supposed to."
Starting out as a sort of tribute band to drone-metal pioneers Earth, Sunn O))) began as a simple exercise in volume and duration, playing molasses-slow riffs and feedback through massive Marshall stacks and the vintage Sunn amplifiers from which the band takes its name. (The O))), a recreation of the company's logo, isn't pronounced.) Their first two albums were released in 1998 and 2000 to little notice, but when the group began performing in the early '00s—cloaked in hooded robes, shrouded in fog, and backed by walls of speakers—a cult following began to build.
"When we first started we thought of it as a studio project," Anderson says. "We had no intention of playing live. But we discovered [that] to really capture what Sunn O))) was about, that physicality of sound we were getting off on, it can't be produced on CD or vinyl. We had to do it live. There's no substitute for volume."
The presentation and loudness made the band a sort of curiosity, attracting crowds of various tastes to their shows. Though Sunn O))) is rooted in metal—both members played in more traditional metal bands—Anderson says he doesn't really feel they've been accepted by many metalheads. Behind the ceremonial theatricality and volume fetish is a fusion of the iconography and symbolism of black and doom metal, with the sound distilled to a primal, powerful roar. It often seems like a lesson in the reduction of the genre rather than a celebration of it.
"The music was unorthodox, so we thought it would be interesting for us and the audience to have something ominous and mysterious going on," Anderson says. "The robes and fog machine made it easier to get into the kind of music we were doing."
If all of this sounds a bit high-minded or maybe has a whiff of Spinal Tap about it, know that the Anderson and O'Malley appreciate the somewhat ridiculous nature of the endeavor.
"Stephen and I laugh a lot, and we know there is something absurd and ridiculous abut the amount of equipment and volume," Anderson admits. "But they're the tools that help create this mood that can be ominous and dark. I mean, the music isn't funny, it could never be, but it can get absurdly heavy"
Sunn O))) has grown more adventurous with each release. They've collaborated with the elite of the noise and experimental-metal underground, and they've worked with several American and European black-metal vocalists—most frequently the cryptic intonations of Hungarian Attila Csihar of Mayhem, who will be joining the band on their current tour, along with keyboardist Steve Moore.
On Monoliths and Dimensions, Sunn O))) expanded their sonic palette to include a Viennese women's choir, avant-garde trombonist Stewart Dempster, and arrangements by composer Eyvind Kang. Perhaps the most unusual contribution comes from Sun Ra and John Coltrane sideman Julian Priester, who can be heard to most striking effect on the 16-minute album closer "Alice," a song dedicated to Alice Coltrane. That track alone seems to have elicited more purple prose from critics and bloggers than any single Sunn O))) album, and if you hear it you'll understand why. Resembling modern composition more than metal, the track winds down with a duet between Priestley's trombone and a harpist in a finale so improbably lovely it must have surprised even Anderson and O'Malley. Though the doom duo's drones are present throughout the album, grounding it in their by now familiar sound, it could be they've reached some sort of pinnacle with the Sunn O))) brand, and one can only wonder where they'll go from here.
For all that's been said and written about the band, you can really find out all you need to know by attending one of their shows. If nothing else, you may marvel and envy the almost primitive boneheadedness of this simple idea they struck upon, and be amazed at how far they've advanced it. Give yourself over to the volume and spectacle, and try to connect with a fading quality Anderson keeps coming back to in our interview: mystery.
"That's kind of a personal crusade we're on," he says. "With everything being available on the Internet, there's no mystery with music and bands anymore. There are thousands of bands playing 10 songs of verse-chorus-verse stuff in jeans and T-shirts every night. And I'm not saying we're better, or that stuff doesn't need to keep happening. I still go to these shows and love them and I will till the day I die. The bottom line is we want to create something unique and memorable."