PRINT April 2006


Sunn 0)))

LISTENING TO A SUNN 0))) record at normal volume is a calculatedly disappointing experience. Take, for example, their latest full-length album, Black One: Released on CD last year and recently issued as a double LP, it features an elaborate gatefold sleeve boasting a morosely hyperstylized drawing of an overgrown forest. This package seems to promise exactly the kind of overpowering, supremely lachrymose sound that the band, as the arguable apotheosis of the drone-metal subgenre, is known for. But put the record on and you may feel that you’re hearing a standard set of hard-rock chord progressions making their way through the brain of an overmedicated teenager, straining through each gluey tangle of synapses, steadily losing momentum. Turn it up, though, way up, and the sublime element becomes palpable: Steve O’Malley and Greg Anderson, who formed Sunn 0))) in 1998, have perfected a sustained infra-sound rumble of sub-bass—so-called brown noise—that provides just about every song in their repertoire with a sphincter-loosening undertone. One thinks of those kids who curl up in the bass bins at raves. To place oneself at the point of greatest sonic impact is an act of fetal surrender and Nietzschean bravura at once. It’s all very elemental: the body, a rock, pushing against a torrent of sound or else getting swept away. Sunn 0)))’s music commands you, but not through the usual exercise of masterful technique. Gaining entry from below, as it were, it rattles the cage of subjectivity that holds the reptilian nerve-center of being.

That said, even as it pitches itself straight at the viscera, Sunn 0)))’s music recalls a tradition more typically associated with the cerebellum: Minimalism. In fact, Steve Reich’s 1968 essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” a seminal articulation of this objective principle applied to sound, could be cited with surprising aptness here. In it, Reich argues that the systematic reduction of the musical work will tend to render our experience of sound more material. Just as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 “White Paintings,” which are animated only by the play of exterior light and shadow, must be experienced as inhabiting space with the viewer, so too is sound displaced into the real world—that is, the world of the listener—in Minimalist composition. For Reich, narrowing the differential between compositional parts is key to accomplishing this transposition of the work from world unto itself to thing in the world: “Listening to extremely gradual musical process opens my ears to it.” Paradoxically, the closer the music comes to being all of a piece—be it one-note or non-note, very loud like La Monte Young’s early drone pieces or silent like John Cage’s 4'33"—the more differentiated it becomes experientially.

This same principle is carried over to Sunn 0)))’s music, but with some crucial context-appropriate amendments. To bring these into focus, one might start by noting that amid the compulsory medievalist locutions of Sunn 0)))’s discography (from The Grimmrobe Demos, recorded in 1998 and released in 2000, to last year’s Candlewolf of the Golden Chalice) are two records called White 1 and White 2. One hardly expects a paean to the Fab Four from a band whose self-stated mission is to create “soundscapes . . . intended to massage the listener’s intestines into an act of defecation,” but the allusion is suggestive nevertheless. Released in 1968, the Beatles’ “White Album” foiled period expectations of conceptual unity in favor of a seemingly schizoid vacillation between state-of-the-art concrète tape splicing—the futurist model for the pop sampladelia that would ultimately rearrange notions of musicality—and staunchly regressive rock purism. In the years to come, youth culture would be divided along those very same lines into two generally hostile camps. From our present perspective, however, the “White Album” can also be seen as the source of another, intermediate route, one that begins to reconfigure the oppositional framework of that prior map of cultural relations, foregrounding, instead, negotiation and compromise. Sunn 0))) are a direct beneficiary of this détente, and the titles White 1 and White 2 could be read in part as an acknowledgment of that (with Black One serving as the occult inversion, as in the Satanist’s upside-down pentagram).

Sunn 0)))’s broader modus operandi is characterized by exactly this sort of open citation of precedent: It was formed in explicit homage to the band Earth, perhaps the most uncompromising exponent of the late-’80s/early-’90s grunge-rock scene of the Pacific Northwest (the appellation “Sunn 0))),” pronounced “sun,” derives from the name and sound-wave logo of Earth’s preferred brand of amplifier). The stripped-down guitars-only lineup, the sluggish tempo that decelerates familiar hard-rocking riffs into alien drone-scapes, the conflation of abject and sublime, asceticism and excess—all of it comes from Earth, who, in turn, took their name from the band that would become Black Sabbath, and who clearly worship at that (upside-down) altar. Accordingly, Sunn 0))) place themselves in a lineage that stretches from the garage-rock sublime of bands like the Seeds and Blue Cheer to the squalling massed-guitar orchestrations of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. The first two Sunn 0))) albums are straight copies, replicating the Earth formula of Sabbath via Terry Riley, Reich, Young, and so on, with academic precision. Then, beginning with White 1, these formal strictures begin to loosen as a succession of foreign elements is introduced—guest musicians, such as post-punk stalwart Julian Cope (who intones the eerie vocals on White 1’s opening number) or experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi (who provides Black One with an utterly uncharacteristic industrial-tribal workout), each bringing a complicated historical arc into the mix.

For all their bruitiste primitivism, O’Malley and Anderson evince a consciousness of their cultural materials—the audiovisual components of the hard-rock form, in all its given-ness—that is nuanced enough to impress the most exacting record-store martinet. They seize upon the rock ’n’ roll format, already reduced and condensed to a point of near-primordial intensity—hard, harder, hardest—as a found object. The name Sunn 0))) is itself a found object. So, too, the electric guitar, rock’s totemic instrument, subjected to devotional, nimble-fingered caresses one moment and a brutal thrashing the next: In O’Malley’s and Anderson’s hands, it is less a surrogate love object than a very nearly inert, alien thing. Onstage, both wear hooded, monkish robes, as if to deny the organic fit between the musical instrument and the body of the performer. There is a schlock-horror aspect to this getup as well, of course, corroborated by the general mise-en-scène of overactive smoke machines and obscure lighting design. This, too, takes shape as genre convention, cliché—though plainly not parody. The anxiety of influence that has defined the developmental narrative of modern and avant-garde art as one of “perpetual revolution” never quite took within the realm of popular music, where aesthetic forerunners still tend to be treated with a Beaux-Arts-style respect, if not reverence—even punk posited itself as a return to “real” rock ’n’ roll. For all its antisocial acting out, mainstream rock has steadily evolved into a kind of conservatory for traditional musical skills (think Megadeth and Pantera, rivals in speed and endurance). Rock bands learn their licks by way of imitation, and, in this respect, Sunn 0))), erstwhile Earth cover band, are more typical than most.

In other words, the notion of a “gradual process” in Sunn 0)))’s case necessarily extends beyond the experience of “pure” or reduced listening to touch on every component of the commodity form—language, image, object—and all of their connotations. And while Rauschenberg was certainly an inspiration for Richard Hamilton’s blank sleeve design for the “White Album,” by the time we get to White 1 and White 2, we have to contend with a much more convoluted referential trail—one that has already transitioned the aims of the historical avant-gardes, via the radical youth culture of the ’60s, into the mainstream. The spare, elegant look of Sunn 0)))’s discs, so reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Ambient” series (and serving, in its consistency from release to release, to emphasize the inherent seriality of record production) is our first clue: If all this seems very much “like Minimalism,” then it is precisely on the “like” that Sunn 0))) stake their singularity.

And so it goes: The sort of attention that Reich wants to compel in listening to incremental shifts in tone or tuning must now also include the sphere of reference—which, perhaps, suggests a slightly different reading of the numerous recent crossovers between contemporary art and hard rock in all its many derivations. One could cite innumerable direct correspondences: The visions of burned or burning churches, for instance, that crop up in the paintings of JP Munro, Tom Allen, and Matt Greene, as well as in Banks Violette’s recent installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, would seem to allude to the incidents of blasphemous arson recounted in Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind’s quasi-journalistic mythology of Norwegian black metal, Lords of Chaos. But works like Violette’s skeletal church—part LeWittian cube, part sepulchre, with a black-metal sound track—also suggest a reengagement with so-called ’80s art and its own rethinking of the objective strategies of Minimalism in light of audiovisual synthesis. Here one might think, in particular, of the work of Jack Goldstein, which draws a productive connection between the Minimalist object, in all its steely cool detachment and obdurate weight, and a particular sort of cataclysmic image: a pilot’s overview of Kristallnacht, a distant lightning storm, or the micro-event of nuclear fission. These same motifs were appropriated by the design teams of contemporaneous record labels like Factory Records and 4AD. (Not incidentally, Goldstein made records as well—deadpan recordings of sound effects—in which the noise produced by a hurricane or an approaching train carries echoes of, say, Sonic Youth’s wall-of-sound feedback.) Perhaps it is the art of a decade in which appropriation came into its own—a decade not so much lovingly resuscitated as risen, lumbering, from the crypt—that really haunts the works of Violette et al. In any case, in the music of Sunn 0))), artists will continue to find the template for a “gradual process” by which historical consciousness, even if only partially attainable—through isolated fascinations, through the telescoping of attention on to discrete cultural fragments—may still be made to reveal a hidden, internal world.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.