Sunn O))) w/ Dead in the Dirt
Sept. 3, 8 p.m., $20, Club INT, 16 Broad St., New Britain, manicproductions.org
Take a moment to inventory all of what American pop radio values in songs — melodies, short run times, vocals, reasonable volumes, accessibility, palatable formulas — and then imagine a bunch of musicologists somehow synthesizing the exact opposite of those criteria into one band. After hours of brainstorming, arguing and midnight meetings, their precise result would be Sunn O))).
Since the late 1990s, the Seattle-bred drone/experimental metal group have worked to confound and agitate listeners. Melody? Sure, Sunn O))) have a few if you engage enough of their discography, but usually, they're assembling songs through linking a series of lonesome, thick, distortion-poxed guitar notes. They linger on bleak notes, eventually creating dense vortices of soul-swallowing sound. When Greg Anderson (who is now in Los Angeles) and Stephen O'Malley (now in Paris) started this project, it was to pay tribute to the early work of Earth and The Melvins, and the heft and power of those bands still resonate in Sunn O))) today.
Short run times are out of the game, too, as all those savored notes add up quickly (or, more accurately, slowly). 2009's Monoliths & Dimensions — the band's last record — houses tracks that span from nine minutes, 43 seconds, to 17 minutes, 34 seconds. While the group is primarily instrumental, vocals show up here and there, but they exist to enhance the foreboding, contemplative atmosphere rather than give you something to sing along with. On this tour, the core duo's bringing along Attila Csihar, a Hungarian vocalist best known for being part of (pitch) black metallers Mayhem.
On the reasonable volume front, Sunn O))) are complete deviants. The group routinely hauls 10 to 15 amplifiers onto relatively small stages, aiming to rattle your entire body and make you think about the weight of sound. The band's name mimics that of amp brand Sunn, with the not-to-be-pronounced "O)))" representing both an image in the brand's logo and the pressure exerted by the band's volumes. As for the accessibility and formula factors — well, if you've made it this far, you can figure out the answers there, too. The total of Sunn O)))'s unorthodox knots and quirks are what ultimately make their drawn-out dirges absorbing.
"We're not actually looking at this as pure entertainment. We're not trying to rally the crowd necessarily. We're doing what we're doing, and it's almost kind of a performance, and we're hoping for a reaction from the audience — not anything specific, just a reaction to it rather than ambivalence. I don't think about it all that much, but to me, if somebody was watching us drinking a beer, on their phone updating their Facebook, that is the kind of reaction that I would consider to be, uhh — that's not the kind of reaction that I would want," Anderson says. "To be honest with you, the whole concept of the fog and the robe was to make it so that we wouldn't have to necessarily worry about the audience being entertained by what we were doing."
This is the sole dimension in which Sunn O))) sync with the contemporary pop ideal: The band's shows are enticingly theatrical affairs in which Anderson and O'Malley don hooded robes (a.k.a. "grim robes"), and arm themselves with fog machines — a sharp contrast to their early days of dudes with long hair, jeans and T-shirts just playing in front of their amps. Yet, even these details exist for greater purposes, as the pair have discussed the importance of their concerts' ritualistic quality and how that affects how crowds process their music. Reason abounds everywhere.
"There's a whole misconception about minimalist music and the minimalist approach to music in general where people say, 'Minimalism is simple.' Well, it's not actually simple, and there actually is a lot more depth and a lot more that goes into it sometimes than meets the eye. That's kind of a reflection of the listener. Some people aren't open to this kind of music [or] to experimental music at all. They're into meat and potatoes: Motörhead and Slayer or whatever. That's totally fine. What we're doing is not for everybody," Anderson says. "It just blows me away all the time that people purchase our records and come to our shows because I know it is really challenging, it is really different, and it actually kind of gives you hope in a lot of ways, too. It gives me hope that people are actually interested in different kinds of music rather than just whatever mainstream schlock is out there — the cookie cutter stuff."