Out of the void

As experimental metal band Sunn O))) rumbles back to life in their 25th year, co-founder Stephen O’Malley focuses on the fundamentals


The concept of Shoshin arose from the teachings of 13th-century Buddhist priest and philosopher Dōgen Zenji. Practitioners of the ancient discipline are taught to keep one’s “original mind” — a state of being where your consciousness is empty and ready for all possibilities. 

There’s something of this Zen practice in the music of Sunn O))) — pronounced “Sun” — an ever-shifting heavy-music mainstay from Seattle whose feedback-drenched brand of drone metal can induce a sort of meditative state. With each new album or lineup change, the critically lauded outfit invites listeners to follow them on new paths to transcendence. 

Stripped back to its core of guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, the latest iteration of the punishingly loud band refers to itself as Sunn O))) Shoshin Duo, playing on this idea of returning to the roots of your beginner’s mind. 

“As an American, these concepts can just be more humbling and simplified. It’s also a nice way to put a twist on describing abstract music, which is what I think Sunn O))) is,” O’Malley says. “So the Shoshin Duo also is Greg and [me] coming back fresh to the purity of those ideas.”

The band’s return to a duo format is a break from their tendency toward collaboration with diverse artists ranging from jazz trombonist Julian Priester to Attila Csihar of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. In this respect, the band’s upcoming U.S. dates — including a Jan. 31 stop at the Gothic Theatre in Englewood — will serve as a sort of palate cleanser. It’s been nearly three years since their last show, and O’Malley says he’s ready to get back to basics with his longtime collaborator.  

“When Greg and I are in sync with this band, this music, this concept, everything else builds on that,” he says. “For me, it’s a bit primordial, because it’s really focused on the purity of the sound we’ve been refining and engineering over all [this] time. We’re sculpting with the big slabs of marble that have just been sliced off the mountain, but it’s not the super refined, end-result sculpture.”

This “purity of sound” has led many critics to label Sunn O))) as minimalist, a designation that doesn’t feel quite right to O’Malley. He sees this as a response to the band’s rejection of traditional song pillars like verse, chorus and melody in favor of elements like atmosphere and volume. He says many people hang on to the descriptor as a catch-all for music that sounds abstract or unstructured to their ears. 

unknown Courtesy: Stephen O’Malley

“I think minimalism is used as a kind of bucket people can throw things in, like, ‘I don’t understand this.’ There are 90-minute pieces [where] few changes have complex harmonic structure. They don’t have the instrumentation or sounds that we’re used to. They seem to not move, and they remind [people] of stillness,” O’Malley says. “Or, ‘It’s boring.’ That’s another thing: Minimalism is a kind of chrome plating on the word ‘boring’ for a lot of people.” 

The “boring” descriptor is especially at odds with the band’s constant gravitation to new musical ideas and collaborators. The Shoshin nature of Sunn O))) carves a space for openness and experimentation among themselves and with others —  including the late groundbreaking composer Alvin Lucier, whose continual push toward the new seems to have left a mark on O’Malley. 

“The first music we collaborated on was a composition he wrote for [Australian composer and musician] Oren Ambarchi and I to play called ‘Criss Cross.’ To my surprise, it was the first piece he had ever written for electric guitar. And he was in his ’80s already,” he says. “[His music is] really sublime and beautiful. Performing the music has also been very challenging and requires a meditative focus.”

But while expanding creative horizons with new collaborators is a major part of what drives Sunn O))), it’s the core duo of O’Malley and Anderson that ultimately move the wheel. The pair have been able to tap into a creative wellspring with one another for decades, having both been in the death-doom band Thorr’s Hammer and then Burning Witch, before forming Sunn O))) in 1998 after the latter’s dissolution. 

“I’m having a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration with Greg Anderson,” O’Malley says. “This has been really central in our lives for a long time. That’s incredible. We built this whole thing up, this whole life around these ideas. And people are more supportive than ever.”

As for what has kept Sunn O))) going over these last 25 years, O’Malley says it all points back to the ritual of the live performance. Taking the stage with his longtime collaborator, the pair cutting berobed silhouettes against a billowing mass of fog and flashing strobes, provides a unique sort of magic for the band and the audiences transfixed by their meditative wall of sound.  

“With Sunn O))), our longevity, the real core of it, has been the live performance and that … alchemy of what we’re doing with our sound [and] ideas,” O’Malley says. “And that alchemy turns into a chemistry with the audience in the participatory movement through these spaces and acoustics to create a very meaningful experience.” 

ON THE BILL:  Sunn O))) with Kali Malone. 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, Englewood. Tickets here.

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