The last thing anyone expects at age 38 is to become a fan of something called “doom metal.” But one evening I asked a friend—a perfectly reasonable 42-year-old, gainfully employed with a nice family—what kind of music he enjoyed, and his fateful answer dropped like an anvil: “Metal.” Professional curiosity led me to join him one night at the Knitting Factory, where I bore witness to the work of a Japanese doom-metal band called Boris: four silhouetted figures on a fog-choked stage, laser lights shooting from behind their heads, playing the absolute loudest music I had ever heard in my life.
Imagine if someone put a microphone to rows of ocean waves battering a rocky shore and then ran the result through distortion pedals and a wall of eight-foot amplifiers. Like that. At one point I wondered if city ordinance allowed for volume this high: My skin vibrated over my bones, the ground rumbled underfoot, my eardrums shook as people around me, evidently familiar with the ritual, began inserting ear plugs. Penetrating guitar chords pounded for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time, with majestic, just-perceptible songs buried in the distortion. When the fog momentarily cleared, a tiny Japanese woman was playing the guitar.
Two hours later, I had to conclude that doom metal was kind of refreshing! Visceral, head-clearing, oddly beautiful and serene in its monolithic loudness, it was, against all my expectations, precisely what the doctor ordered for the age of recession and economic anxiety: a brute, overwhelming live experience requiring a long attention span and a certain intestinal fortitude—the antidote to the fusillade of BlackBerrys, Twitter, Google alerts, TARP news, and stomach-turning fluctuations in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This makes more sense than you might think: Novelist and heavy-metal aficionado John Wray, author of Lowboy, once described being bludgeoned by metal avatars Sunn O))) as “somehow more meditative than violent. The overall experience was not unlike listening to an Indian raga in the middle of an earthquake.”
Little wonder that doom-metal bands have names that wouldn’t be out of place at the local yoga center: Om, Ocean, Earth. It’s extreme-volume therapy, a spa treatment in black Satan T-shirts. When I learned that another friend, a bankruptcy lawyer who spends his days sifting through the wreckage of defunct Wall Street firms, was also a doom devotee, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Apparently there’s something about a global financial meltdown that calls for a curative blast of palette-cleansing noise. Witness Lou Reed returning to stages with Metal Machine Music, his controversial 1975 double album of cacophonous feedback that Rolling Stone once called “the tubular groaning of a galactic refrigerator.” Or inveterate musical anthropologist David Byrne spotted, with earplugs, attending a Sunn O))) concert. He’s a fan. In an article anthologized in the Best Music Writing 2007, he wrote that Sunn O)))’s music conjured visions of ant colonies, melting ice caps, Mayan ruins, Donald Rumsfeld’s brain, and Jesus’s and Mary’s private parts, among other things.
Needless to say, this is not your dad’s heavy metal. Compared to, say, Judas Priest, it’s the difference between the sixties TV Batman starring Adam West and The Dark Knight with Christian Bale. John Cage–inspired sonic experimentation, elements of modern classical music, folk, post-rock, and free jazz are embedded under the crush of ambient feedback. Ozzy it’s not. The two members of Sunn O))) (pronounced simply “sun” and named for a brand of amplifier) are big Miles Davis fans. Not that you’d necessarily hear the influence in their music. The image on the cover of their just-released album, Monoliths & Dimensions, features a Richard Serra painting from 1999, an image that looks like a big black hole entitled “out-of-round X.” That gets the sound about right: overwhelming and too big to wrap your ears around.
Onstage, Sunn O))) play bowel-shaking chords painstakingly slowly for two hours while wearing druid robes amid the ubiquitous fog. Imagine the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind relocated to Stonehenge. Whether this is patently silly or deadly serious is never made clear, but metal has always been theatrical. It’s not unfunny, but it’s also riveting. “These days, there are so many distractions, it’s hard for people to focus on something,” says Greg Anderson, half of the doom duo. “I want this to be something people focus on, first note to last note, because that’s how it makes sense.”
Anderson owns and operates Los Angeles–based Southern Lord Recordings, the go-to hub for adventurous metal, featuring bands like Boris and ambient black-metal practitioners Wolves in the Throne Room. Listening to doom metal on recorded albums, of course, is a bit like trying to eat a steak on the Internet: It’s not ultimately satisfying. But Southern Lord makes gorgeously packaged records on vinyl that serve as pristinely recorded tokens of the live experience. The designer of much of the label’s ornate neo-gothic album art is the other half of Sunn O))), Stephen O’Malley, a Seattle-bred graphic designer living in Paris. O’Malley is the de facto Dave Eggers of doom metal—the intellectual force who curates the music’s cross-pollination with downtown New York artists.
The band’s latest creative exchange was with Jim Jarmusch, who included Sunn O))) and Boris on the soundtrack for his new film, The Limits of Control. O’Malley recalls the director’s reaction to their music: “He’s like, ‘Oh man, it’s like Gerhard Richter—the Sound!’ Wow, thank you. That’s a nice thing to say.” In April, I ran into Jarmusch after a listening session for Sunn O)))’s new album, where participants were radiated in just-shy-of-painfully-loud distortion emanating from two frighteningly large speakers a few feet from a leather couch. He spoke about the “dream architecture” in the music, how “beautiful” and “peaceful” it could be. “It can be heavy and dark,” he went on, “but that peacefulness is because they take you on a trip and everything falls away and there’s something freeing—I guess what meditation does, you know?”
And perhaps that’s it: When the wheels of economic progress stall and end-time chatter seeps into your Facebook status, it’s not a bad time to pan back for a wide shot and just listen to the big om. You won’t have to listen too hard: The volume is on 11.