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Metal Meditations, Really Loud

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The decibels shall spill when SunnO))) performs at Sonar in Baltimore on Sept. 23. Over the course of the decade, this enigmatic duo has invented a dialect of heavy metal so earsplitting, yet so oddly soothing, I've even forgiven the band for the annoying way it spells its name. (Pronounced "sun," the spelling approximates the logo of a vintage guitar amp.)

Instead of delivering their riffs in violent, concentrated bursts, guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley slow metal down to a halt. The sounds they unfurl are colossal, droning smog clouds of distortion -- and the effect is incredibly sedative. Remember when Slayer evoked torrents of blood back in the '80s? SunnO))) is a 21st-century morphine drip.

Now, after a slow-motion ascent through our don't-blink blogosphere, the success of SunnO))) makes it one of pop's most fascinating anomalies: a fringe group pushing so far toward the outer limits, it's actually circling back toward mainstream appeal.

Music journos have been quick to champion the duo's tranquilizing virtues, and the band's meditative racket has attracted a wider audience than anyone could have imagined. Yes, the idea of a blissed-out metal band sounds like the stuff of novelty, but SunnO)))'s mysterious gravity has drawn everyone from faithful head-bangers to button-down newbies in search of a sonic master cleanse. There's a weird reverence at the band's shows -- an almost religious awe. (The fact that the O'Malley and Anderson perform in monks' habits might have something to do with it.)

The band's latest album, "Monoliths & Dimensions," is its strangest and most successful recording yet, with contributions from former Coltrane collaborator Julian Priester, avant-garde composer Eyvind Kang and Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar. Fronting SunnO))), Csihar sounds like Cookie Monster making dirty phone calls in a dead language, but don't let that harsh your mellow at Sonar. As O'Malley recently told Pitchfork, SunnO)))'s music isn't "meant to be intimidating. It's meant to be enjoyable and ultra-pleasurable."

So if you trek up to Baltimore, what can you expect to find? Enlightenment? A migraine? Therein lies the dilemma of pop criticism in this splintered information age: One size never fits all.

But if you've ever wondered what a black hole might sound like, I'll see you there.

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