Somewhat strangely, the opening to SUNN O)))'s 2004 release, White2, begins with a few seconds of silence. It baits the listener to turn up the volume in anticipation of music before a monolith of a distorted, detuned chords drop and loop in a circular pattern for the duration of the song. It's no surprise then that the following crest is found scrawled on each of the band's releases: "MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS."
"When we first started out we were just a couple dudes getting high and playing as loud as we could so we could feel the back of our jeans shake," explains Los Angeles–based guitarist Greg Anderson, cofounder of the band. "And when we started playing live I realized that I started going into a trance with how much volume there was. It literally shakes your body, so it's kind of like this massage aspect."
Birthed in 1995 by Anderson and longtime friend Stephen O'Malley, the band quickly clawed its way to the summit of the burgeoning drone-metal genre when its first recordings came out in small quantities in 1999. Titled Grimmrobe Demos, the debut was recently rereleased on Anderson's own Southern Lord label. Loosely based on the work of local metal forebears, especially Earth's Earth 2 album, the demos feature the sustained tones and lethargic tempos that came to characterize the drone-metal genre. Anderson explains, "[Early on] we sort of made the ultimate drone records for us, which were Grimmrobe, 00void, and The Flight of the Behemoth—three records that to me were very true to the whole Earth worship and Melvins worship [mode]." However, it wasn't until 2003's White1 and 2004's White2 albums that SUNN O))) hit upon their recent popularity.
The White series found the band forming a distinct identity by bringing in a variety of collaborators to help explore uncharted territory. Though centered on the core unit of former Seattleites O'Malley and Anderson, the two albums contain contributions from Thrones genius Joe Preston, former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar, Jessamine members Rex Ritter and Dawn Smithson, and Julian Cope ex-Teardrop Explodes singer. For Anderson, the creation of these albums was a crucial moment in the arc of the band. "We made a semi-conscious decision to take the group into a different area and try and push some boundaries... to hopefully push it into a new direction and then have people from completely different backgrounds working together on the same piece."
Though the albums are rooted in the earlier SUNN O))) explorations of drone, the band also began to craft sparse pieces that touched on such similar pointillist landscapes as modern electronic improv and ambient music. The White records show hints of Moog synthesizer, washes of crisp feedback, and other elements that produce a similar ethereal, haunting quality. The crossover appeal that followed was something Earth was unable to achieve after years of hard work. Legions of bookish avant-garde music fans followed the slow crawl that metalheads had already taken toward SUNN O)))'s graveyard-guitar call.
From here, the story only gets darker. The new SUNN O))) album, Black1, is a direct challenge to and inversion of the White series. Though no less compelling in terms of composition—and acute choice of exalted personnel—a turn toward the truly grim is tangible. It's rumored that famed black-metal vocalist-songwriter Malefic was locked inside a casket and loaded into a disused hearse to record his vocal takes. Instances of recording decadence and pseudo-ritual theatricality aside, the album evokes a desolate landscape where the familiar SUNN O))) guitar drone is occasionally augmented by bouts of metallic hooks and ghoulish wails. Live, SUNN O))) are an almost entirely separate experience. O'Malley, Anderson, and company are clad in druidic robes accented by low lighting. The effect is part cathedral, part ancient rite, but all psychodrama. The usual studded leather, spiked armbands, corpse paint, and prominent pentagrams are replaced by a fresh visual language and an all-encompassing, uncompromising firstname.lastname@example.org