Sunn 0))) - "Big Church" (Monoliths and Dimensions)
The meager band that 11 years ago began as an Earth tribute act has graduated to full-fledged “modern” composition with an increasingly eclectic aesthetic. Of course, Sunn 0)))’s huge drones are still present, but superimposed atop is a delicate web of fascinating signifiers, doubtless a product of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s collaboration with composer Eyvind Kang.
Even the earsplitting guitar work that opens Monoliths and Dimensions speaks to new explorations; the first moments of “Aghartha” are basically in mono, coming from the center of the soundstage, which places the myriad feedback in sharp focus. The stereo spectrum broadens gradually, the translucent feedback augmented and eventually supplanted by instruments in similar registers. The timbres are loosely orchestral, including strings, delicately rattling percussion, conch shell and English horn, but they’re used to very different effect as the sounds cluster and bloom over long-time cohort Attila Csihar’s now-familiar and resonantly dark exhortations. The distorted drone fades, leaving the unnerving wash of timbral subtlety to carry the track slowly forward. “Aghartha” represents the band’s journey in microcosm, from the bottom-heavy lugubriousness of The Grimmrobe Demos to the richly atonal ambiences of Black 1.
The rest of the album develops these ideas in epic style. “Big Church” opens with women’s choir, which may not be initially clear, as the timbres they produce are unearthly, fading in and out of focus with unnatural swells. The opening gestures of “Hunting and Gathering” present distorted guitar; the upper partials are isolated, possibly a contribution from experimental improviser Oren Ambarchi, who makes several appearances here. Yet, it’s “Alice,” the finale, that makes the biggest impression. Carrying on from the ghostly pipe-organ resonances of last year’s live album Domkirke, it’s an introspective series of glacial swells, each involving liquid movement from low to high register and back again. The constantly shifting harmonies are strangely bright and open, allowing all of the overtones stunning clarity. The gently undulating waves flow over a gorgeous trombone melody from Arkestra veteran Julian Priester, punctuated by gentle harp and string washes. All recedes save Priester’s trombone, ending the album on a single tone of penetrating beauty.
As refreshing as it is to hear a band change course, a venture’s success depends on how the new vision is sustained and fostered. Monoliths and Dimensions is a bold step forward and bodes well for Sunn 0)))’s future relevance as not just musicians, but honest-to-god composers.