December 7, 2015

Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions: Part XVII - Kannon

By Craig Hayes. If you want to get a clear picture of the increasing mainstream acceptance of avant-garde or extreme music, then you only have to note that Sunn O)))’s brand-new album, Kannon, was introduced
By Craig Hayes.

Cover art by Angela Bolliger.

If you want to get a clear picture of the increasing mainstream acceptance of avant-garde or extreme music, then you only have to note that Sunn O)))’s brand-new album, Kannon, was introduced to the wider world by being streamed on Rolling Stone’s website. No offence to the long-running magazine, but folks had waited six long years for a new Sunn O))) album to appear, and seeing it debut on Rolling Stone was a perplexing situation indeed.

Still, I guess that’s a reflection of Sunn O)))’s position in the pantheon of contemporary rock ’n’ roll in 2015. Once upon a time, Sunn O))) were a decidedly underground experimental metal band. But then, stunning albums like 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, and equally compelling collaborations with Scott Walker (Soused) and Ulver (Terrestrials), clearly raised the cult band’s profile well beyond what I imagine Sunn O))) founders Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson could ever have imagined.

Sure, Sunn O))) are never going to have a smash hit record. But they’re definitely being applauded by a significantly larger audience nowadays. One thing that Sunn O))) have always done, whether popular or not, is to keep moving forward. Which, I admit, is a statement wholly at odds with Sunn O)))’s critics’ usual complaints that the band really don’t change their position enough, or at all.

Sunn O))) 2011. Photo by Webzine Chuul.

However, the suggestion that Sunn O))) are a static band is ludicrous. Because even if their music has often seemed to be made of colossal and immovable megaliths, Sunn O))) have always been fixed on transforming their sound. Yes, the band do work to a template. But increasingly diverse albums like White1, White2, Black One and Monoliths & Dimensions added increasing amounts of colour and texture to that template.

Sunn O)))’s live shows have transformed the band too, with Sunn O))) and their fans exploring enormous sonic pathways together. On Kannon, Sunn O))) also explore a new creative trajectory. It’s not a radical change in direction, but there’s more than enough movement to signal that Kannon represents another step in Sunn O)))’s evolution.

As usual, O’Malley and Anderson steer a course towards the heart of a collapsing nebula on Kannon. But all the heaviness and low-end exploits aren’t just about conveying a dark vision or evoking a grim tone. Sunn O))) also part the clouds on Kannon, with the aim to let a little compassion and illumination shine down. And they’ve drawn inspiration to do that from the world of Buddhism.

The influence of Eastern spiritual traditions might seem like a new tack for Sunn O))), but the band’s music has always featured a meditative pace and aura, as all great transcendental drone does. Although Anderson has said, “I wouldn't consider us to be spiritual people”, a sense of the spiritual is a huge component in the band’s live arsenal. Their concerts in cathedrals, recital halls, and clubs the world over have always been ceremonial affairs, with the band in robes and hoods, ritually summoning giant slabs of mantric sound while shrouded in smoke.

Sunn O))) 2011. Photo by Webzine Chuul.

So spirituality is not unexplored terrain for Sunn O))). But what is new is that Kannon marks the band’s most concise work yet. Don’t panic, Sunn O))) don’t shortchange us on the sheer sonic power front here; Kannon is still an intense experience. However, the album barely pushes past the 30-minute mark.

That doesn’t mean that Sunn O))) were aiming for a more accessible album. Even if famed experimental musician (and Kannon collaborator) Oren Ambarchi’s first response on hearing the final mixes was to say to O’Malley, "Yeah, it's kind of like … Sunn O)))'s pop record." It’s really not. Kannon is pitch-black molten riffs delivered at a molasses pace, as always. And I think we can take it for granted that Sunn O))) won’t be compromising their vision for commercial reasons anytime soon.

The three triptych drones on Kannon were recorded and mixed by Randall Dunn, and the album features long-term collaborators, including Mayhem’s Attila Csihar (who ‘sings’ on every track here), Rex Ritter, and Steve Moore. At its core, Kannon primarily orbits around O’Malley and Anderson’s interplay, as they worship at the altar of amp-melting bass and guitars. “Kannon 1”, “Kannon 2”, and “Kannon 3” are fairly straightforward drones as a result. At least, they favour Sunn O)))’s live set-up a little more, and dispense with the larger framework and orchestral accoutrements of Monoliths & Dimensions.

Sunn O))) 2011. Photo by Webzine Chuul.

There’s plenty of Sunn O)))’s patented 10-tonne distortion on Kannon. “Kannon 1” starts off with a seismic-shaking riff, before the track’s atmosphere thickens and becomes more ominous as Csihar’s eerie croaks and crackles appear. “Kannon 2” churns through the dramatic darkness, as Csihar zealously chants over sub-bass walls of noise. While “Kannon 3”, the final piece in the three-piece puzzle, seals the crypt with a doom-laden drone that harks back to the starkest and heaviest musical motifs of Sunn O)))’s earliest tracks.

In fact, if not for Csihar spitting, growling and/or howling throughout, much of Kannon would fit right in with the bare-boned and punishing drones from early in Sunn O)))’s career. That means, where Kannon sits in Sunn O)))’s oeuvre is a bit of a curious question. In many ways, the album feels like Sunn O)))’s most metal releases since Black One. Yet Kannon is also a sparser and brighter album than the ceaselessly choking and wonderfully nightmarish Black One.

In the end, given that this is around the 20th Sunn O))) album review I’ve written, the fact that Kannon still inspires me to try and unpack its secrets and endeavour to understand its deeper meaning can only be a good thing. Certainly, delivering a more compact yet still deeply contemplative album like Kannon, after such a hugely theatrical work like Monoliths & Dimensions, is an unexpected move. That the band continues to surprise and enthrall, 17 years after their debut, is perhaps the greatest testament to their continuing creative prowess.

Long may Sunn O))) reign as the lords of spellbinding drone.

The Sunn O))) Monoliths and Opinions series.
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