Sunn O))): From Amplifiers to Altars

Sunn O)))’s 2005 drone metal record, Black One

Sunn O))) (simply pronounced “Sun”) are a peculiar metal band from Seattle, WA, known for their punishing and monolithic drone releases as well as their ritualistic live shows. Their live audio philosophy reads as following: “MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS.” Walls of amps line the back of the stage, belting out hundreds of watts of power as guitarists Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley release enormous, droning chords. Occasional live collaborator Attila Csihar provides low, ritualistic chants that ionize the air as smoke machines conceal the performers behind a hazy wall of light and sound. Also, did I mention that they all wear dark ceremonial robes when they perform?

Sunn O))) take their immediate musical and aesthetic influence from drone metal legends Earth, another Seattle-area band perhaps known best for releasing Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version in 1993 – the veritable beginning of drone metal as we know it today. 3 songs make up 73 minutes of massive, ominous walls of detuned, distorted guitars.

Dylan Carlson of Earth discussing Earth 2

Earth has obviously championed this dark aesthetic, carrying it onto releases such as Pentastar: In the Style of Demons (1996) and The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (2008), but never to Sunn O)))’s extremes. Beyond the outward aesthetic the two groups share, there is another unifying thread in their unique sound: their choice of amplifier.

Enter the Sunn Musical Equipment Company of Tualatin, OR – longtime manufacturers of reliable and reasonably cheap amplifiers, formed in 1965 and closed in 2002.

Sunn found its roots in clients such as the Beach Boys and John Entwistle, providing high quality, reliable, and great sounding amplifiers for cheap. It is to be noted that Sunn had a pretty minimalist aesthetic, designing their amplifiers to have simple, attractive control schemes with little flair. They feel kinda monolithic, in a way.

The first four pages of the 1969 Sunn amplifier catalog, heavy use of negative space

Sunn put out loads of great tube amplifiers (as in: the guitar’s signal is amplified using vacuum tubes. some claim that tube amps are far and away better than solid-state amps) in the 60s and early 70s, as well as plenty of exceptional solid-state amplifiers (as in: the guitar’s signal is amplified using transistors rather than vacuum tubes) in the 70s and 80s. Sunn began to fall out of fashion as time went on, and the company’s location led to lots of their amplifiers being strewn across the Pacific Northwest, forever changing the sound of the scene.

Notable bands using Sunn amps from the PNW include Unwound, Melvins, and the aforementioned Earth, among many others. Many of these bands preferred these amps for their enormous sound and fantastic distortion, and with these bands came a sort-of Sunn mythos. Vintage Sunn amps command premium prices today, with their most revered amp, the Model T, regularly fetching prices of over $2000 on the used market.

2nd generation “red knob” Sunn Model T, early 1970s – a good example of no-frills design

Now, back to the band Sunn O))) – after taking the reigns handed to them by scene-mates Earth and Melvins, Sunn O))) decided to take the musical associations with Sunn amps in an even darker direction. Once known for their reliability and craftsmanship, Sunn amplifiers are now associated with a monolithic sound, infinitely heavy guitars, and with drone-doom bands around the world (see: Boris, Melt-Banana, etc.).

King Buzzo of the Melvins was well known for using a Sunn Beta Lead amp on the band’s early releases, and he still uses custom Sunn Beta preamps today

Despite having dissolved as a company nearly 17 years ago, Sunn’s legacy lives on with this newfound aesthetic. Countless imitators have taken their amp designs and aesthetic and modified or re-purposed them in countless ways – clones of amplifiers, amplifier preamps condensed to guitar pedal size (even I’m working on one right now!), to even just general product design.

Electronic Audio Experiments Model feT guitar pedal, a preamplifer based on the aforementioned Sunn Model T.

Sunn left an enduring legacy in the American and worldwide underground rock scene, but did so almost entirely without their own involvement. It was up to bands like Melvins, Earth, and later Sunn O))) to develop and nurture an aesthetic for Sunn amps, redefining their image as a whole. Sunn amplifiers define many sludge, doom, and drone bands, and the scene wouldn’t be the same without them.

Many have tried.
(source: me)
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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Gabe! You have introduced me to a new favorite band! I love drone/ambient music with layers of texture. This brings it to a new level. I like the horror-cemetery vibe that the video of Sunn O))) portrays. I’ll bet the concerts are intense with the walls of amps. My buddy and I like to make ambient music that usually starts as clean and beautiful then becomes a wall of sound.


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