The music of American drone metal duo Sunn O))), even though structurally simplistic, is anything but easy to consume. The richness of their sound still pours through layered subtleties that require attentive listening lest they be drowned out by the incisively crumbling riffs. Supported by looong droning noises, wails, screeches, tone shifts, and the rest of their array of inhuman sounds, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson flesh out an artistic expression that requires the listener to forget and relearn how to approach music and sound. Rhythm, melody, and harmony are thus thrown out the window; in their place a different system based on texturally and timbrally intricate aesthetics must be accepted. In that regard, Kannon, their first non-collaborative release since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, remains a recognizable Sunn O))) record.
While the press blurb will claim that Kannon brings the band closest to “metal” in years, it’s more of a new step in a slightly different direction rather than a regression to earlier efforts such as Black One. Yes, the guitar riffs are prominent and demolishing, the bass lines throb and fill the air, but they appear, as all other familiar elements here, recontextualized and disassociated, serving a mystical, ritualistic purpose. This feeling of otherworldliness is further reinforced through a directness to the music and the prevalence of a specific overarching idea. By anchoring themselves to concepts of Asian spirituality and Buddhism, they’ve reduced the characteristically hermetic levels of abstraction and subjectivity. Instead, they project a clearer and sharper picture onto the listener. These changes can be traced back to Stephen O’Malley’s solo explorations and to the band’s collaborations with avant-garde masters Scott Walker (Soused, 2014) and Ulver (Terrestrials, 2014).
Kannon is simultaneously a condensed offering to Buddha’s “goddess of mercy” or “perceiving the cries of the world” aspect and a sonic emanation of it. Building upon the foundation laid on Dømkirke in 2007, this album represents Sunn O)))’s foray into a succession of liturgic mantras distorted to fit with their own heritage. Keeping with the spiritual theme, Kannon is formed as a single incantational composition or “triadic whole” divided into three rather sharply cut movements that can stand on their own but are best appreciated together. Of those three pieces, “Kannon I” features the strongest meditative atmosphere, largely upheld by Attila Csihar’s slow, murmured and vibrating growls that resemble both black metal rasps and Tibetan throat singing, while the guitars’ abstract screeches are far removed from the band’s usual wall of sound. Its ethereal nature is further underlined by abrasive, displaced synths, and a certain looseness and negative space in the interplay between the instruments. “Kannon II,” on the other hand, touches upon traditional idioms with a doom metal riff leading the way and Csihar’s growl mutating into a kind of deranged Gregorian chant. Finally, “Kannon III,” a reworked version of “Cannon” from the aforementioned Dømkirke, acts as an amalgamation of the previous two movements, managing to create a simultaneously reflective and aggressive mood.
Observed as a whole, Kannon is a relatively minimalist and sparse entry in the gallery of Sunn O)))’s works that lacks some of their earlier expansiveness and overwhelming power. The album’s curiously short duration (only 33 minutes) seems to suggest that O’Malley and Anderson’s creativity was restrained and burdened by the singular focus of their theme. Kannon thus feels imagined as an experience or art performance rather than purely a music record, especially when taking into consideration the care poured in the artwork by Swiss designer Angela LaFont Bollinger and the liner notes by critical theorist Aliza Shvartz. Similarly, the production and mastering work is just exquisite, exposing all the microdetail and tangled sound manipulation of the instrumentarium. It beckons to be played loudly, very loudly.
Even though different in nature, Kannon certainly isn’t Sunn O)))’s most accessible nor most experimental album, neither will it convert anyone to their drone-doom religion. Yet, whether we choose to see it as a vessel of meditation (BLACK YO)))GA fans, take heed!), transcendental transportation, confrontation, or dissolution, it’s still a worthy, if somewhat underwhelming addition to the creative output of two musicians (plus guests) that are still evolving and mutating despite superficially appearing as ageless pitch-black monoliths adorned with monk robes.