Album Review: Sunn O))), Monoliths & Dimensions

[from MadeLoud, June 29, 2009]

Sunn O))) has long been a very minimalist band, even by drone metal’s usually sparse standards, but the group’s past few releases have seen an oh-so-slight branching out into new directions of the ambient guitar sounds that made it famous. Through some increasingly dense (and weird) explorations over the past 11 years, the Portland duo, along with Jesu and fellow north-westerners Wolves in the Throne Room, have emerged through the fog as something resembling royalty among the rumbling faithful. Without straying too far from the formula, their latest Monoliths & Dimensions brings strings, choirs and brass into the fold, all to mostly successful result and all without losing their firm grip on the kind of spacey, noisy metal Sunn O))) fans have come to expect.

Lest any worshipers of the Sunn O))) let the usual apprehensions about a group “branching out” or “experimenting” get the best of them, the opening five minutes of low-end rumble on “Aghartha” should assuage any fears of the duo going symphonic on them. Indeed, as the disc progresses, the group (primarily guitarist/bassist Stephen O’Malley and bassist/guitarist Greg Anderson) never uses the orchestral flourishes for the expected bombast but instead as additional textures in their increasingly loud, increasingly swampy brand of riffless metal; you can almost feel the slack in the down-tuned strings.

Filling a 53-minute disc with a mere four tracks might seem excessive, but the duo and their 22(!) guest musicians do their best to fill every second, but unlike most metal groups bringing orchestral musicians on board, Sunn O))) and company actually instead do as little as possible with the new guests. Witness the conch shell of “Aghartha” or the woodwind touches of closer “Alice.” The tracks, for all their epic lengths, actually avoid most of the usual staples of “epic” metal in favor of, well, more drone, more space, more texture and new kinds of noise.

And this ultimately becomes the fatal flaw, not just in the group or the album but with the genre itself: the songs are seemingly over before they really ever get started, especially odd in Monoliths’ case considering the “shortest” tracks run around the ten-minute mark. But drone (or doom, ambient, ambient stoner, avant noise or whichever classification they’re aiming for) has never really relied on riffs or grooves, but rather on the big sound itself and on this level, despite its resolution-free songwriting and nearly a-melodic structure, Monoliths & Dimensions succeeds.