On Sunn 0)), 'Monoliths and Dimensions,' and The Epic Track "Big Church"

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Tue, May 26, 2009 at 11:11 AM

"Big Church" begins with a female chorus. Then a low-tuned distorted guitar powers up like a muscle car, and the juxtaposition between the chorale passage -- all altos and sopranos -- and the creeping guitar pattern -- baritone and bass -- is immense. Both move slowly and with great intent, beauty colliding with darkness, melting into a mysterious other. This other glides into a layer of orchestrated feedback and male chanting too quiet to comprehend. Then a long drone, a solitary church bell, and a swath rich silence that proves John Cage's theories. Another guitar ignition, this one humming with grace, as though Sunn0)) guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, joined on this track by Earth founder Dylan Carlson and Oren Ambarchi, have discovered and unlocked a secret infinite cavity inside their guitars that expands the scope of resonance and depth.

click to enlarge 0234.jpg

There are no drums. The beauty of it is the anticipation, the waiting for something big to happen. "Big Church" has a structure, though, and it's massive. Where epic rock songs of yesteryear such as "Sister Ray," "In a Gadda Da Vida" and "Losing My Edge," find beauty in serialistic, Steve Reichian repetition, fewer are the extended songs that use space and time to craft something huge that takes patience and concentration to resolve. Sure, the prog rock bands of the 1970s made long songs that took advantage, but ELP, Yes, and King Crimson used the full album sides to wank their way into consideration as "serious music" by showing off their chops and drawing melody from baroque and romantic sources. They used "classically trained" as an excuse. They wanted to out-Beethoven Beethoven.

click to enlarge Richard Serra sculpture at New York's MoMA
  • Richard Serra sculpture at New York's MoMA

Sunn0)) offers big ideas gradually, thoughtfully, creates a monolith of sound and then molds it into something graceful but menacing. It's no accident that Monoliths & Dimensions' cover is a painting by sculptor Richard Serra; "Big Church" and the gestalt of the band's output feels heavily inspired by Serra's massive series of "Torqued Spirals."

Unsung hero of Sunn0))'s recent work is Eyvand Kang, who arranged the entirety of Monoliths & Dimensions. The Portland-based composer released a series of searing solo works on John Zorn's Tzadik label in the 1990s (the best of which is 7 Nades), and has done time with the Sun City Girls, Bill Frisell and Zorn. Though it's tough to tell where Sunn0)) begins and Kang ends, the combination feels seamless. Other guests include brass player Julien Priestler, who was a member of Sun Ra's Arkestra, and Stewart Dempster (a member of Pauline Olivieros' Deep Listening Band).

Sunn0))'s Monoliths & Dimensions is out today on Southern Lord. It's gorgeous.

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