Anderson, partner with Stephen O'Malley in the ambient drone-metal band Sunn O))) (the "O)))" is silent), knows the music the duo creates is not likely to appeal to a large cross-section of society. Twenty-minute tectonic incidents — built around an almost sub-harmonic roar that's felt as much as heard — lack the big audience of the three-minute pop confection. However, the slender crescent of the population that follows Sunn O))) is fanatically devoted. Limited-edition, colored vinyl records of its digitally released albums sell out instantly through the website of Southern Lord (Anderson's record label) and then go for triple digits on eBay; fans travel miles to see the duo's infrequent live performances; and speculation about what they'll do next runs rampant.
But none of that is what's making Anderson laugh currently, as he talks via phone from Southern Lord's LA offices. "Let me look it up, I wanna get this right." There's the brief clatter of computer keys, and then he reads aloud the technical facts about the syndrome he believes is behind his bouts of vertigo, the one that's also making his left ear flutter and spasm. "It's called Ménière's disease, and 'it's characterized by episodes of dizziness and tinnitus and progressive hearing loss, usually in one ear. It's caused by an increase in volume and pressure of the endolymph of the inner ear.'" More laughter.
Is it any surprise, considering every Sunn O))) album bears the credo "Maximum Volume Yields Maximum Results"?
What's perhaps more surprising is how conventionally beautiful Sunn O)))'s new album is. Monoliths & Dimensions features string arrangements by Eyvind Kang, a Viennese choir, harps, horns and keyboards. "That element of surprise is maybe not consciously what we strive for, but I'm happy when I feel like we've achieved that," Anderson says. "'Cause it's really rare these days where bands are surprising people, especially with the Internet and people being able to find out information about or listen to what the artist is doing at various stages throughout the process. Of all our records, I would say we took the most chances with this record and stepped out of our normal way of doing things."
The result of those risks is an album that sounds unlike any other Sunn O))) album, but is still unmistakably Sunn O))). There's a very symphonic feel to Monoliths & Dimensions' four compositions — not as in "metal band plays with symphony," but as an integrated music; it's a rock band expanding to symphonic scale. Anderson and company have crafted an amalgam of acoustic instruments and heavily amplified guitar drone that explores the area where the natural voices of the instruments overlap in tones and timbre.
On "Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)" Sunn O)))'s core sound of massive riffing is in the forefront in the form of a lower-than-low bass figure that relentlessly smashes itself into the bridge of your nose, while cult black-metal vocalist Attila Csihar gargles Hungarian diphthongs. During the crescendo, which happens around the 5:25 mark, multiple tones — the guitars, Csihar's voice, a four-voice "man choir," a trumpet and a gong — congregate around the same note, resonating with Mariana Trench depth. (Herrs Wagner and Bruckner would be jealous.) Album closer "Alice" showcases mournful horns, copious amounts of cymbal wash and delicate pizzicato harps (!) over rampant guitar. And then gradually the guitar's drone retreats, giving way to the bibulous burble of a trombone and the lacy filigree of the harp. It's the most subdued, most unapologetically gorgeous ending to a Sunn O))) riff yet, this gentle retreat into silence.
But it's not what you'll hear live; Monoliths & Dimensions' experiments in sound require too many parts for easy touring. Anderson and O'Malley want to make the effort, and a complete album performance is in the thinking stage.
"It's gonna be a special event situation, where we play one or two shows in the U.S. and one or two overseas in a special venue," he says. "But I think it would be detrimental to the music if we toured it. It'd be too difficult. I think the logistics would drag it down, which is something I wouldn't want to happen. If we were gonna play this live, I want it to be a real positive experience in every aspect possible."
And Anderson's quick to note, "That's one thing about this group. We've never been a group that's been held back by playing to play the album that's released at that moment. The shows we're playing on this tour in the Midwest, we have some of the players on the record, Attila Csihar on vocals and Steve Moore doing analog synths and trombone. And I think we'll play some of the riffs or some of the ideas, and work with some of the concepts from the record, but it's not like we're going to be playing any of the songs in a recognizable way." Again, Anderson laughs.
"Really, the concepts are what I think we're all interested in exploring, especially the dynamics [of the music] concept. We've kinda been the band for a long time, that the live show has been one extreme wall of sound. We like to experiment with spaces in the music, bring the volume down and then bring it back up as an effect."
But whatever Sunn O))) plays, it'll be at bowel-churning volume. The band's rider for last year's tour stated bluntly: "Sunn O))) is 125dB on stage. Sunn O))) is very loud. Sunn O))) focuses on low & sub-bass tone with intention of a heavy physical presence within music beyond the typical concert experience."
That mass of volume comes at a price — such as a possible case of Ménière's disease — and other strange effects. "I have had dizziness and disorientation after a long period of time playing, like an hour in," Anderson claims. "Your sense of perception gets messed with because of how the volume envelops you. But it's also the physical thing, it's such a physical sensation with the amount of air coming out of the speakers, that it can be deceptive, and it messes with you. The funny thing is about [the low frequency sound] is that a lot of people really are into it. It's not painful, but the aftereffects are just as damaging as high-end loudness. It's more a pleasurable feeling."
I note that my cats always flop down in front of the stereo when I crank a Sunn O))) album.
"Yeah, I've had the same sort of reaction from my cats; they like it too," Anderson replies. And then he chuckles, perhaps picturing cats in monk robes and corpse paint lazing about in the front row.