"Well, it's all about amplifiers," says Sun Splitter guitarist Jacob Essak. "I mean, I'm surprised, because I've been talking to you for 20 minutes now and we're just getting around to amplifiers."
Sun Splitter plays a variation on doom metal, a style characterized by glacial tempos, oppressively druggy moods, and unhealthy decibel levels. The typical doom band's approach to amplification looks like the product of an arms race among gear geeks—Japanese trio Boris, who do slow and heavy as well as anyone, named an early album Amplifier Worship. For doom musicians, a wall of vintage Sunn amps seems just as mandatory as a love of half-speed Sabbath riffs.
That equipment does more than look cool and impress other guitarists. Despite recent leaps in digital emulation, there are still some guitar sounds you can only produce with ridiculous amounts of wattage—discerning listeners can tell if you're faking it. And high stage volume, at least in smaller venues, allows a band to sound louder than it could by relying on reasonably powered amps miked through the club's PA system. This makes it easier for the audience to experience the sound with more than just their ears—when your skeleton is vibrating to a note, it induces a synesthetic state that's trippy even when you're totally sober. Holding those notes for an extended period of time only intensifies the high.
Essak talks about his rig with the fervor of a religious convert. "When you're standing in front of it," he says, "you get, you know, 150 watts blasting you in the face. It's just a great feeling. And when you take that feeling, and when you take those strings and down-tune them, and you make it lower and heavier, and those notes are hitting you more consistently, for a longer period, it's just really intense. Sometimes it feels like when you're hitting the note—when you're really laying out a long heavy note—it sometimes feels more like you're playing the electricity in the amplifier than the guitar itself."
The sensations those sounds produce can be so engrossing that some bands barely bother to make music with them—when Sunn 0))) play live, for instance, their output could only be described as "songs" by the most charitable possible definition of the term. "There is an element, when it's done right, where the three of us in our practice space will just have the waves of volume coming out of our amplifiers washing over us, and it does transport you," says Essak. "And it is a feeling that's addictive—and we are well into our addiction."
It took 20 minutes to arrive at Sun Splitter's favorite topic, though, because the band had a lot to talk about. When I called, Essak, vocalist Anthony Dunn, and guitarist and drum programmer Frank Hays were preparing for a trip to Champaign, where they planned to spend a couple of days at Great Western Record Recorders. (Their Facebook page appears to list five members, but Sober Bill and Ignoble Peter are nicknames for drum machines—the band needs two because both are old models, and neither has enough storage capacity for an entire set.) They've since cut six tracks totaling about 45 minutes. One is for a split seven-inch with Bridesmaid, a group from Sun Splitter's old hometown of Columbus, Ohio (it's due in March on Cincinatti's Bastard Sloth label), and the other five are for an LP that doesn't yet have a home.
Doom-metal albums might seem like a waste of time, given that it's probably impossible and definitely impolite to duplicate the volume of a live show with a home stereo, but Sun Splitter is compelling even in recorded form. Local label Land of Decay, run by ambient black-metal group Locrian, recently released II, a four-song, 37-minute tape, in a series of 100. The music's not brand-new—the band first released it on CD-R in late 2009 in an edition of 20 that included a round tin case and several handmade prints from Dunn, then followed up with a more modestly packaged edition of 100 last spring—but many of the virtues Sun Splitter has now are already in evidence. For one, the group is more melodic than your typical doom band. Their songs tend to wander, but their meditative passages are punctuated by cascading riffs that follow unusually active chord progressions. Their massive sound is flavored with noise and industrial music, in part because of the drum machine, but the rhythms aren't sterile and mechanical—Hays manually keys in the tracks by tapping the different pads in real time. Sun Splitter are also more aggressive than most other doom acts—sometimes it sounds like they're trying to tear their songs apart from the inside.
The trio first got together in Columbus about ten years ago, when all three members were enrolled at Ohio State. They've gone by many different names, and didn't settle on Sun Splitter till 2007. They began as "more a performance-art project than anything," according to Essak. "A lot of noise without real direction. Eventually we just kept going at it, just kind of hammering away making sounds, and it sort of formed itself into a doom project." In 2004 they split up as members began graduating and leaving Columbus, but by 2006 all three had moved to Chicago. They released a three-song CD-R called I in an edition of 28 in early 2008 and played their first show as Sun Splitter in September of that year.
Chicago has turned out to be a good home for the group. Over the past decade, the worlds of noise and metal have grown closer, and here the two scenes are exceptionally tight. In Columbus in the early aughts, Essak says, "The noise kids definitely weren't going to the metal shows and the metal kids definitely weren't going to the noise shows." Now Sun Splitter are as likely to share a bill with local power-electronics guru Mark Solotroff as they are with Georgia swamp-metal duo Jucifer, proud owners of their own massive wall of amps.
About those amplifiers. Sun Splitter's live setup currently consists of a Sunn 190L with a 2x15 Acoustic cabinet, an Orange OR120 with a 4x12 Kern, and a bass rig powered by either a 100-watt Fender Bassman head or an Ampeg V4—and that's just for the two guitarists. They run the drum machine through a 600-watt Sunn power amp and a Sunn concert bass head, which drive a 2x15 and 2x12. (The first number is the cabinet's driver count; the second is the diameter of each driver in inches.) If you've ever had to load your own gear, just reading that list probably makes your back hurt. "It pays off if you use them the way we use them," says Essak. "You know, it's a necessary evil, so we deal with it."