Even the staunchest Sunn O))) fan has to realize why the band is some of the most polarizing groups in underground music. Core duo Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson took idea of a gargantuam wall of guitars – pioneered by Earth‘s debut Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version – and escalated it beyond its logical extent at the time, and perhaps even still. Yet, while long pieces of dense sonics may be understandably inaccessible, the notion that the band are an uninspired, drone metal AC/DC is utter fantasy. When the band’s extensive discography is explored in chronological order, it’s clear that O’Malley and Anderson have taken their signature drone style and gradually – but poignantly – evolved over time to craft some of the most worthwhile experimental music laid to tape. This examination of all the key full-lengths and collaborations in Sunn’s extensive discography should help newcomers gain a better appreciation of the band’s music and hopefully figure out where to start.
ØØ Void (2000)
O’Malley and Anderson made their influences clear when ØØ Void dropped, with a foundation from Earth very much intact and the album’s rendition of “Hung Bunny” from Lysol giving a firm nod towards the Melvins. Yet, Sunn’s proper debut differed in a distinct way, straying from the more traditional doom and sludge leanings of their influences. Instead, ØØ Void maximized the volume and distortion to create feedback-ridden landscapes much darker and denser than anything drone metal had offered before. The album is definitely a formative release for Sunn, and also their most straightforward, though the singular focus on guitar drones contains a fair bit of subtle detail for those willing to make the trek.
Flight of the Behemoth (2002)
While Flight of the Behemoth isn’t a drastic progression in Sunn’s sound, it shows incremental steps forward towards the experimental territory they’d pillage on later albums. Noticeable shifts in style on the album come from the band’s collaboration with Merzbow, who mixed “O)))Bow 1” and “O)))Bow 2.” The former incorporates a fair bit of dismal piano that compliment the buzzing guitars, whereas the later feels as though it received significant treatment to sound more like a noise-based track. And of course, album highlight “F.W.T.B.T.” reworks Metallica‘s classic “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” transforming it just beyond recognition and including the first instance of percussion and vocals on a Sunn composition.
White1 (2003) & White2 (2004)
We’ve never lumped two albums into one entry for a Half-Life, but both of Sunn’s White albums were recorded in the same session and were truly the turning points in the band’s trajectory, showing strides from dedicated guitar drones to a literal desolate wasteland without a border in site. With just three tracks each, the White albums made each moment count in exploring as much new territory, with White1 being overall just a tad more experimental. From recitation of druid and Nordic poetry over subdued guitar drones (“My Wall” and “The Gates of Ballard”) to a dedicated stoner-doom drum and riff combo (“The Gates of Ballard”) to a chilling dark ambient piano drone (“A Shaving Of The Horn That Speared You”), the first half of the White albums bears little resemblance to the band’s formative years but still maintained the underlying wicked vibe of every Sunn release. White2 was slightly more traditional, only in the sense that a third of the album – “Hell-O)))-Ween” – is a traditional Sunn track that doesn’t stray from their roots like other tracks recorded during the session. The remainder of White2 continues in the vein of its sister album, with “BassAliens” sounding like a horror soundtrack and the even more terrifying “Decay2 [Nihil’s Maw]” introducing the vocals of frequent collaborator Attila Csihar of Mayhem fame. Both of the White albums remain some of the band’s most eclectic works and laid the groundwork for the remainder of their career.
Black One (2005)
There’s a reason I chose Black One as my entry in our drone metal Starter Kit. The band’s current magnum opus, Black One strikes the perfect balance between Sunn of old and new, providing ample amounts of chilling soundscapes layered over some of the band’s all-time greatest riffs and drones. There’s a fair bit of black metal influence as well, evident as soon as the opening tremolos of “It Took the Night to Believe” sets a morbid tone for the album. This also true from a vocal standpoint: With the assistance of Malefic (Xasthur) and Wrest (Leviathan, Lurker of the Chalice), Sunn layer these musical explorations with a chilling variety of vocals, ranging from gurgling bellows to dread-ridden shrieks (the latter of which were supposedly captured by placing the extremely claustrophobic Malefic in an enclosed coffin to record his vocals). The track on which this occurs is “Báthory Erzébet,” the most essential piece of listening from this album and perhaps Sunn’s career. It’s the pinnacle of this marriage between dark ambience and crushing guitar drones, creating immense tension before releasing into the jowls of a demon as it fills the night air with its deep, resonant roar.
Altar is arguably the best of Sunn’s many collaborative efforts, as the band’s interplay with Boris presented some excellent and varied compositions that still stayed true to their traditional style. Yet, while Boris’ noisy tendencies come through on a number of the drone-oriented tracks and compliment Sunn’s sound, its the “Sinking Belle” trio that truly highlights the album. Labeled as Blue, Black and White Sheep, these three tracks arrive on different issues of the album and contain variations of the same brooding, beautiful guitar and piano melody, with it being rumored that they’re intended to be played simultaneously. However, if you’re yearning for more a traditional Sunn sound, Altar has you covered with the excellent, half-hour dirge of “Her Lips Were Wet With Venom,” a drone-doom jam session featuring Earth mastermind Dylan Carson joining the band on guitar.
Monoliths & Dimensions (2009)
As important ad excellent as White1&2 are, the very nature of their release is disjointed, with the same session being spread over a two year period instead of seeing the light of day as a single statement. While this isn’t necessarily an issue of quality, listeners who want a standalone drone epic of the same nature should seek out Monoliths & Dimensions immediately. The album comes in at a close second behind Black One as Sunn’s greatest offering, providing four tracks of superb drones accented with a myriad of additional instrumentation. Sunn worked with composer Eyvind Kang to implement extensive choral and orchestral arrangements amid their walls of guitar to create the band’s most musical and developed pieces. Its an album meant to be digested as whole without interruption, though it may take some time for it to fully sink in.
Fun fact: Terrestrials is not the first instance of Sunn teaming up with Ulver for a project. When the band re-released their White album series as a vinyl box set, they included a bonus track entitled “CUT WOODeD,” which enlisted Ulver as a collaborator for a track seeping with the dark, electronic edge of the later career of the Norweigan legends. Several years later, the two bands came together for Terrestrials, three live improvisation pieces that wobble between various shades of ambience. While this is certainly a great album, it leans more towards Ulver than Sunn, and is overall a bit too short. Still, it’s certainly worth checking out for Sunn fans, though maybe not before other albums on this list.
A joint effort between Sunn and Scott Walker was an announcement no one expected but then actively yearned for. thought the end result was rather polarizing, its still an interesting piece of music, and a strong indication that Walker is decreasing the epic break periods he’s had between records. On Sousesd, its difficult to determine where Sunn and Walker both begin and end within the album’s tracks. Walker’s vocals and Sunn’ drones are both instantly recognizable, obviously, but the musical ventures on the album represent the oddities of both artists’ careers in as even a marriages as one could hope for. Of course, Sunn fans’ enjoyment of Soused will depend heavily on their familiarity, tolerance and/or fandom of Walker, but those who love Sunn’s experimental edge will surely find the album to be a true sonic delight.
My review of Sunn’s latest offering is one of my longest pieces to date, and for good reason. Kannon‘s three part sonic journey through themes of hope and demise, centering around the eponymous goddess from Eastern religious tradition whose name means “Perceiving the Cries of the World.” Kannon feels more like a singular piece rather than just a standard album, but still bears the impact of any of Sunn’s greatest records. The record also presents the current culmination of Sunn’s evolution; a record that considers droning guitars equally among an ever-widening array of musical ideas. True virgins to the Sunn sound may find Kannon to be a fitting entryway, while veteran listeners should recognize it as one of their finest offerings yet.