Ever felt a frequency?
I did once, and even though it only happened last month, I doubt I’ll ever forget the first time I saw SUNN O))) live in concert. In a darkened hall pumped full of ominous fog, a thunderous chord rang out and cut through the opaque scene with a flash of color and light. In an instant, the entire building began to shake. Chairs vibrated like they were sold at The Sharper Image, and standing upright proved to be challenging, as my legs wobbled like a baby deer learning to walk. A bag of potato chips lying on the floor scooted around the aisle, compelled by the sheer blasts of air from the amplifiers on stage. And at the fore of the time-measured chaos, among the back-up players stoic in their druidic hoods, stood Seattle’s own Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, purveyors of sonic doom and masters of drone metal.
Since that legendary show, I’ve been talking the ears off anyone who’ll tolerate listening to me about SUNN and drone metal (and they have my thanks). But one friend who decided to listen to the band’s music asked me what exactly it was I liked about it. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to build a strawman. Over the years of devouring SUNN’s catalog, a common complaint I hear about drone metal is that “it’s not music. It doesn’t sound like anything.” Ultimately, I can’t argue against someone’s personal taste; I wouldn’t want to in the first place. But with SUNN O))), it’s not as easy as just saying “it sounds like nothing.”: the nothing is the something.
I offer this explanation of how to enjoy SUNN’s music, straight from the band themselves:
“For the listener or recipient/participant, there are deep rewards within the patience of pulling down the walls of letting the music feel and feel the music. To be immersed will reveal great detail and colour, clarify image, encourage a depth of focus and stillness, which may lead to a quite profound experience. Sitting inside the space of time. A deep form of elementalism, even atomism, and connect with present moment, time, and reality.”
If you haven’t noticed by now, to fully enjoy the type of music that SUNN writes requires, however passive, audience participation. Even now, I can hear my strawman cry, “But Ian, I don’t think I like avant-garde music. Experimental metal is for hipsters.” Well, strawman, you’ll never know unless you give it a fair and honest try. SUNN have a slight reputation for being unapproachable, but every music fan can find something to love about the meditative qualities of drone metal. I love avant-garde music, but I’ve also eaten more salads with plastic forks than silver. Anybody can like this stuff. If you’re already a SUNN O))) fan, then welcome, I hope you don’t hate my list. But if you’re new to drone, you’re in for a real treat.
I figured it was going to be tough, but ranking SUNN O)))’s discography turned out to be a tad more difficult than anticipated. Anyone who’s made a graded list of beloved albums knows the pain of assigning poor scores to personal favorites. So, with the hopes of properly rating SUNN’s catalog, I’m going to provide two grades per album:
1) a letter grade that reflects my opinion of how each LP compares against other SUNN O))) albums
2) an O))) score with more or less )))’s depending on how bright I think each piece shines (if that makes any sense)
Additionally, I’ll provide the year of each album’s release and a brief description of whatever genre Stephen and Greg were playing at the time. SUNN specializes in drone metal, but they incorporate something new and uniquely overwhelming on every release.
My mission here is to introduce new listeners to SUNN O)))’s masterful sound and to raise awareness of underground musical movements like drone and ambient. Not to say that the Northwest masters of drone metal need my publicity; they’re warmly received worldwide and have influenced tons of bands. But, it’s still a rather niche genre, and there’s a slight ‘barrier of entry’ to getting into SUNN. I genuinely think that more people would enjoy the solitudinous resonance of drone metal if they gave it a fair shake, and groups like SUNN O))) have a wealth of absorbing and visionary content for the taking. I hope that the following ranking of their albums sparks some debate amongst O))) fans, and maybe, helps someone find a new favorite band.
Sit back, put your headphones on, close your eyes, and “don’t blame the messenger of doom…in stillness O’Malley and Anderson play on.”
8) Kannon (2015) – Drone metal, experimental
Overall, the mid-2010s Kannon is a good SUNN album, albeit somewhat underwhelming. It’s comparatively thin to the records that precede and follow chronologically; weighing in at three songs in just over thirty-three minutes, the penultimate Kannon is half as long as O)))’s latest LP, and it contains my least favorite collection of drones and noise. I’m not crazy about the artificial-sounding mix job, and some parts of the Kannon triptych sound like SUNN’s tube amps are made of tin. Tuna can amps aside, Kannon does feature some high-quality drone moments and shouldn’t be skipped over by new and old listeners alike.
This spot on the list is also where SUNN’s collaboration albums rank. I’m referring to the duo’s joint efforts with Ulver, Scott Walker, Boris, et al. I tend to think they’re not as satisfying as solo O))), but with the same spirit as Kannon, I recommend that you give all of the SUNN projects a try.
7) Flight of the Behemoth (2002) – Drone metal
Flight of the Behemoth revs up like a motorcycle engine that makes the THX-sound effect, and it keeps chugging along at a geologically-patient clip until Merzbow shows up with his noisemakers. I know there are lots of harsh noise fans who worship the ground Merzbow stands on, but I prefer SUNN O)))’s classic guitar-and-amp setup, compared to the who-hoovers and flu-floopers that Merz brings to Flight of the Behemoth. The album ends with a bizarre-yet-fun drone metal cover of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” a fitting closer to a polarizing gem.
6) ØØ Void (2000) – Drone metal, funeral doom
SUNN O)))’s debut album Double-O Void stands out today as a drone metal staple, and for good reason, because there’s incredible promise shown off by the Hydra Head freshmen that sounds just as heavy as it did nearly two decades ago. Double-O Void is a good introduction to long-form drone metal, as each of the album’s four tracks are over fourteen minutes long. Unlike other avant-garde sounds, the subterranean rumble of a shuddering bass drone is a lot easier on uninitiated ears than, say, a piercing squeal of a Prurient album from the same year. Faraway funereal wails are buffeted by “NN O)))”’s tempest of distortion, and O’Malley and Anderson sneak in a cover of the Melvins’ “Rabbits Revenge,” which is a sly treat for those who cherish the Northwest grunge and sludge scenes. Highly recommended and necessary listening for those getting primed for what’s coming next.
5) Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) – Avant-garde, dark ambient, drone
I can’t believe I’m putting M&D in the five-spot on this list, but that’s why you play the game. Monoliths & Dimensions used to be my favorite O))) (and still has my favorite album art), but over the years, it’s dropped a few spots; however, there’s a reason why some consider this late-aughts project to be SUNN’s finest work, and back when I was listening to this ad nauseam in 2011, I would’ve agreed.
If I had to describe Monoliths & Dimensions in one word, that word would be “CHALLENGING.” There’s extensive personnel wielding weapons of heavy brass and delicate strings; there’s a man who, among other instruments, plays a conch shell (shoutout to Steve Moore); there’s a song called “Big Church [Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]”, and though it runs a beefy 9:43 minutes, it’s ironically the shortest song on the album. On M&D, O))) and friends whip up a realm of abyssal chaos, and the energy that escapes the void sounds complexly layered and stunning. Try listening to this one while walking around somewhere desolate and dark; it works better that way.
Grade: B (this feels so wrong)
4) White2 (2004) – Drone metal, ambient
Barely squeaking out M&D, this excellent drone metal project, accompanied by some surreally bucolic artwork by Pieter Brugel, the Elder (“The Beekeepers”), was recorded during the same session as SUNN’s sister and heretofore-unmentioned album White1. If you’ve been listening to the O))) canon in order, White2 exhibits more ambiance than traditional drone, but gutter-rumbling vibrations like “Bassaliens” expands SUNN’s oeuvre and set them up for experimentation down the road. Still, there’s classic skull-shattering drone metal to be found here. Come for the light-swallowing behemoth “HELL-O)))-WEEN,” stay for the surprise Attila Csihar cameo towards the tail end.
3) Black One (2005) – Drone metal, black ambient, avant-garde
Breaking with their numerical naming convention, Black One exists as a tuning fork in the road at the junction of drone metal and avant-garde. Out of all the albums on this list, Black One took me the longest to appreciate. It’s dark, cold, lonely, and frankly evil, but over time, I’ve come to dig the black metal weirdness and occultist tendencies of this record more so than Monoliths & Dimensions. A cadre of collaborators from the black metal scene crowded around SUNN’s unholy amplifiers to gargle and sneer through the static of harsh noise; according to the band, a gentleman by the name of Malefic, an alleged claustrophobe, delivered his vocal performances crammed inside a casket. Though the throughline throughout Black One is decidedly black metal, some of O)))’s more beloved songs and drones are found within these sixty-seven minutes. There’s the frequently-played “It Took the Night to Believe,” a blend of spooky electronics and cavernous poetry; honestly, I could see this track being played at a haunted house, or in The Haxan Cloak’s dreams. But, if you’re like me and traditional drone is more your speed, nightmares like “Orthodox Caveman” and “CandleGoat” deserve your rapt attention.
2) White1 (2003) – Drone metal, avant-garde
Absolutely massive in scope, White1 is SUNN’s first true masterpiece. Though it’s slightly similar to its chromatic counterpart, White1 ascends to higher climes than the band had explored before, to a sphere of caustic air and somatic volume. If you’ve made it this far, you might’ve noticed that when it comes to enjoying SUNN’s brand of “heavy metal”, patience is the name of the game; however, White1 doesn’t wait for you to get comfy, as guest Julian Cope completely sucks you in from the jump with an arresting (and lengthy) poem recitation on “My Wall”. Graveling verse gives way to crumbling walls of sonic debris, quaking and capsizing, snapping like glacier bones. Goliath drones bend and yawn, churning the crackling distortion like electric butter, plodding along at tectonic speeds, growing cold, and mimicking entropy. The songwriting (and song-titling) is highly imaginative, with tracks taking on a narrative life of their own. Take “A Shaving of the Horn that Speared You,” for example. The breath-like cadence of the fricative guitar feedback sounds like an impossibly huge grinding wheel sanding down an ivory bone jutting from your solar plexus. Though it would make for a hilariously terrible jukebox selection, White1 is a serious piece of art and an essential album of experimental music.
1) Life Metal (2019) – Drone metal
If it wasn’t obvious by now, I cherish not just SUNN O)))’s albums, but I tend to like most everything the O))) gang puts out. I like the solo projects, the collabs, the demos, even the live albums. And I really like Black One and White2 and White1 and the Monoliths and the Dimensions. But there’s something different about Life Metal. Something very different and truly special. I wrote a lengthy review of Life Metal when it dropped earlier this year, and though I gushed for over 1000 praiseful words about SUNN’s eighth album, I didn’t foresee the enduring impact it would have on me. I like Life Metal more than most music, in general, and it’s now EASILY my favorite drone metal album (somehow besting Earth2, an immortal classic). It’s a journey of calamitous atmospheres and radioactive air, a birds-eye view of impassable monoliths lining the pathway towards peaceful annihilation. When I saw SUNN O))) in concert last month, they played “Novae” and “Troubled Air,” and experiencing Life Metal in person was unlike anything I’ve felt before.
I’m currently working on a Top 10 list of the greatest music of the 2010s, and so far, it includes indie rock, electronic, jazz, and metal. Some additions were easy, some were not, but something I didn’t expect was for Life Metal to make a break for my list at the last minute. Its inclusion is still up in the air, but regardless, I never grow tired of listening to this album. Remember that description of SUNN’s sound I provided up top directly from the band? Keep those words in mind while listening to Life Metal. If the universe could speak, they captured it nicely here.
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction. Life Metal is perfect, and I only have my thanks to give.
But wait, isn’t there something missing? SUNN O))) has a new album coming out later this month?? That’s right, Life Metal’s sister album called Pyroclasts drops on October 25th, and I almost considered holding off on this list until I had a chance to listen to their 9th LP. But, I know I’d need some time with it before deciding where it falls in with SUNN’s other work, so when the time comes, and I feel comfortable about it, I’ll update this Rank & File with my thoughts on Pyroclasts.
Thanks for reading, and let us know what you think in the comments below.