By the time Sunn O))) formed in 1998, doom metal had undergone a major shift. Forged in the '80s by the likes of Saint Vitus, Pentagram, Trouble and Candlemass, the genre was initially characterized by mid-to-slow tempo, riff-oriented metal that countered the more popular thrash and speed metal of the day. A few years later, The Melvins showed everyone that this shit could go even slower, and a slew of bands spent the '90s searching for the deepest, darkest, lowest guitar tones. That's exactly how Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley spent the middle part of the decade. Between their stints in Burning Witch, Khanate, Goatsnake and Thorr's Hammer, their thumbprint on the genre's direction had already been guaranteed, but their work as the core duo comprising Sunn O))) is how they'll be remembered.
While forming Sunn O))), the two had already decided that the deepest, darkest guitar tone had already been found and that Dylan Carlson laid it down on Earth's second record, a three-song, 73-minute double album of amplifier worship and thick, distorted drones. Taking their name from Sunn Amplifiers (the 'O)))' part is meant to mimic the logo), the duo set out to openly and unabashedly rip off Earth 2. Performing shows in creepy hooded cloaks while obscured by an army of fog machines, the duo recruited a cult following, and their success eventually surpassed that of their primary influence. They eventually absorbed that influence, as Carlson has appeared on several Sunn O))) records, and the band-run label Southern Lord now releases Earth's albums.
The combo's cult success spawned a drone doom scene glutted itself with like-minded but indistinguishable bands. By the time the band released White 1 and White 2, they had largely shed what would traditionally be considered metal and fully embraced their stranger tendencies. The constants in Sunn O)))'s catalog have always been ungodly levels of volume and general weirdness, so the duo delved headfirst into the latter. The first track in the White series features The Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope delivering a monologue that references druid occultism while giving shout-outs to O'Malley and Anderson. This approach, over the backdrop of what the tandem called "power ambience," eventually won them the attention of such outlets as Pitchfork and The New York Times. Just as their most challenging and engaging work to date was released on The Black One, Sunn O))) became the poster boys of hipster metal.
So in a way, Sunn O))) are kind of like Dashboard Confessional. Their brand of drone metal bears almost no resemblance to '80s doom, yet for many people Sunn O))) is doom metal. (Much the same way, emo was originally a product of hardcore punk, but ask a group of people to compile a list of emo bands, and Dashboard will likely land in the top five.) Nonetheless, there's one fundamental and crucial distinction between the two that must not be overlooked—Sunn O))) have never sucked.
At this point, the band is an amorphous collection of musicians revolving around mainstays Anderson and O'Malley, who have gotten even more ridiculous on this year's Monoliths & Dimensions. This time, the duo's wall of distortion finds company in a Vietnamese women's choir, a double bass trio and horn and string sections with arrangements by composer Eyvind Kang. There's also Hungarian black metal vocalist Attila Csihar, best known for his stint in the Norwegian band Mayhem: He replaced the previous singer, who had committed suicide, and whose skull was made into a necklace by the guitarist who found him—who, as fate would have it, would be murdered two years later by the band's bassist. Csihar has also been known to perform inside of coffins.