SUNN O))) - Monoliths and Dimensions
Flashback!!! Album originally released May 5, 2009 (Southern Lord)
Monoliths and Dimensions is the seventh full-length offering from American drone/doom duo Sunn O))). The band have always been very keen to play around with different influences, from Black One's black metal inspiration to White2's use of spoken word to Dømkirke's dark ambient soundscapes, but Monoliths goes a step further. Orchestras, choirs and even jazz elements are thrown in at different points, all combining to form the act's most genre-defying release.
Let me start by saying that I was originally going to open this review with a piece of description, a short story to set the tone and convey how the album makes me feel. However, after trying and starting over a couple of times I realised that absolutely nothing I write can do justice to the twisted, surreal emotions that Monoliths and Dimensions subjects me to. I'm still going to do my best, but know that this isn't something that can be expressed in words. You have to listen to it yourself to get the full experience.
And what an experience it is. The tone stays consistent throughout, but for a drone metal release the songs themselves couldn't be more varied in their emotions and methods for conveying them. The existential opener 'Aghartha' builds up and up for close to 10 minutes before crashing back down with a full orchestra playing a dissonant wall of sound. This climax stretches on for what feels like an eternity - it's an incredibly uncomfortable experience but one you're glad you went through at the end. Picture being stuck outside in a storm at night on an abandoned mountainside. You're frozen, you're being lashed at by sheets of rain and you feel pathetic, your very life at the mercy of the elements. But eventually, after you've accepted the bitterness of your situation, you begin to find some beauty in the distant lightning strikes, the monolithic black clouds and the sheer might of nature. When the day finally dawns, you realise what you just went through was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and, despite how torturous it was at the time, you're grateful for it. That's what listening to 'Aghartha' feels like.
The range of emotions present in the first track are starkly contrasted by 'Big Church [Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért]', which is pure terror. It's minimalistic, with bass lines and vocals at the forefront as opposed to a full orchestra, but it's effective. You're trapped in a surreal nightmare beyond the realms of imagination, drawing ever closer to something unspeakably evil. No other song can have me at the very edge of my seat for 10 minutes, absolutely convinced that I'm about to die, but the combination of the bass frequencies with sinister choirs and low spoken vocals really does it. It might sound ridiculous to Hungarians, but the repetition of that one word, again and again, in each movement more frequent and intense than the last, just gets to me. I'm paralysed. I can't survive. This is the end. Then, just as the piece crescendoes for the final time and the arcane horror you're confronting begins to come into sight, it's over.
The album's closer also needs touching on - 'Alice' is a contender for the best metal song of all time in my eyes. It's a tribute to the deceased jazz musician Alice Coltrane, performed to near perfection. The track starts out in typical Sunn O))) fashion, submerged in an abounding darkness as heavy as the crushing bass lines. A screeching harp occasionally pierces the creeping and dissonant melody, adding to the overall discomfort and sense of impending doom - once again I go back to the analogy of being stuck outside in the nighttime, but 'Alice' is less abrasive and more subtle than 'Aghartha' in its delivery. It's foreboding rather than torturous. You're looking out into the dark, thinking about what might be hiding in it but knowing you can never be quite sure. But gradually, the tone changes. More and more instruments join the ensemble - a saxophone, a French horn, a trombone and more can be heard over the low-end droning. And ever so slowly, the darkness is alleviated. Triumphant and assonant melodies seep into the piece just as light would begin to fill a pitch-black sky at dawn. At the end the bass is almost completely gone, the final notes of the album comprised of a French horn melody which is nothing short of beautiful - one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. You've survived the storm. You've survived the night's terrors. The sun has risen.
There is one small negative to the album - track 3, 'Hunting and Gathering', is a very sinister and well-composed drone track but pales in comparison to the album's other three behemoths - but this isn't enough to stop the Monoliths and Dimensions from being as near perfection as it gets in my eyes. It definitely isn't for everyone; it's uncomfortable and might seem like pure noise at first, but underneath the chaos there are patterns and in those patterns there is beauty. It's absolutely worth going through, because if it does click with you, you're never going to hear anything else like it.