The subterranean tones and roof-rattling sound waves of Sunn O)))'s uncompromising version of drone metal have been Stephen O'Malley's way of life for two decades. But there are practical concerns – for one, hearing loss.
"My hearing is pretty good considering I've been playing this music for 20 years," O'Malley says. "It would be a lot worse if I was working in construction, according to my audiologist. We wear hearing protection on stage. I want to do this for a long time. And you know what? The sound, the harmonic structure of overdriven guitars, is actually quite beautiful. Something changed for me five years ago playing live inside this wave field of high energy – it no longer felt violent. It was physically fatiguing to play that intensely for two hours on stage every night, but mentally it became so much more vital to me."
That apparent contradiction isn't hard to fathom for those closest to the band. Longtime fans find the band's concerts as much spiritual as they are physical. The guitars of O'Malley and his longtime bandmate Greg Anderson don't throw daggers at the audience through a stack of amplifiers so much as conjure a cocoon of lava or a series of waves closing in from all sides. At its best in concert, this music exudes an ecstatic pull, a sensation nearly impossible to replicate in the recording studio. But the band has come closer than it ever has to achieving that you-are-in-the-room ambiance with the forthcoming "Life Metal" (Southern Lord), which was recorded last year in Chicago with Steve Albini.
"One of the challenges with this band has always been to get recordings that sound as vital as the live experience," O'Malley says. "If you look into a volcano from the edge of a crater and feel the heat, it's not the same as seeing it on HD film. In that sense, Steve is like the best 70-mm cinematographer. He's an expert in capturing sound and opening up the head room."
Though not a live recording, the four tracks on "Life Metal" – ranging from 11 to 25 minutes – were based on a foundation of live performances, and then tonal colors were added later, including almost subliminal vocals, pipe organ and cello. The album title can be viewed as a response of sorts to the duo's 2005 album, "Black One," which doubled down on the band's roots in the gloomiest, doomiest aspects of metal.
"As a counterpoint to 'Black One,' it raises questions about what that means now verses how it was presented at the time," O'Malley says. "Connecting work that is 15 years apart, using two words to do that, that's pretty powerful. From my point of view, it's not a contrarion phrase. It has elements that have a role similar to how contemporary art can reference historical art or ideas. Within the metal scene there are other relevant elements, why not express that now? Why not be free to express symbolically all of these other elements inside the music, color and texture, with this beautiful, detailed recording of sound. Let's also do that with the symbolism of the cover art and all the visuals."
The "Life Metal" cover art is a painting by Samantha Keely Smith, a fictional landscape artist whose work mirrors the tone of the new new album's seismic arrangements: glimmers of hope amid the swirling, dream-like turmoil (the "Life Metal" preview video, available on YouTube, explicitly juxtaposes the art work with the music).
That the band continues to produce provocative and relevant work 20 years into its career, O'Malley says, is in part a byproduct of how the duo functions. He and Anderson are involved in multiple side projects, and they haven't lived in the same city since a brief time together in Los Angeles during the late '90s.
"Our friendship is the core of this band," O'Malley says. "Every time we get together, it's a pleasure to make music with each other. There's a reunion aspect to it that is personal as well as musical. There's a celebratory positivity about what we do together, as opposed to slogging through things like rehearsing every Thursday and complaining, 'Oh, he's late for practice again.' We don't have to deal with mundane stuff like that and just focus on what we both love to do."
In that 20-year run, O'Malley's view of the band has shifted. What he once viewed as a hobby has turned into a foundation for his life's work as an artist and musician. "It's not just a band for me anymore, it's not just about playing concerts or recording music, it's this abstract conceptual project–a long-term one," the guitarist says. "I've found I can develop a lot of ideas in that. Whether they're relevant to anyone else, that's another story, but for me it's very significant to have this gift to work with."