The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

The Lead Review: Kim Kelly On SunnO)))'s Kannon
Kim Kelly , December 4th, 2015 10:23

With today's release of Kannon, the first complete SunnO))) album in six years, Kim Kelly looks at the spiritual potence behind the stagecraft and theatricality of their work.

SunnO))) have always been something of a quasi-religious band. The core duo – Stephen O'Malley on guitar, Greg Anderson on bass – have steered clear of the bloody, fleshy dogma of Judeo-Christianity in favour of creating their own creed: one focused entirely upon the power of the riff. If anything, they've shown themselves to be less than impressed with organised religion as a whole, intoning on their last album, "For your repeated incapabilities of having been 'unholified,' deconsecration perhaps is the opposite of oneness in a sacred sense." Their shows have long been billed as rituals, a characterisation strengthened past the usual heavy metal penchant for self-seriousness by their own design; they take the stage swathed in hooded Druidic robes, bent double over their instruments in an ecstatic trance, surrounded by the ceremonial splendour of their monumental backline with its copious amplifiers. There's a hypnotic, meditative quality to the music, one that remains even after all the stagecraft and theatricality is stripped away; drone by definition invites its listeners to lose track of time, to allow minds to wander and heads to nod reflexively.

To add to that religious pastiche, SunnO))) have played (and recorded) many shows in churches (the first time I saw them was in a chapel in Philadelphia, where the pews filled with metalheads who bowed their heads over and over in time with the undulations of strings. Sunn's religion is more old time than new age – their worship is primal, corporeal; it focuses entirely on the manifestation of sound, and the atmosphere they conjure around it. They invite their congregations to join in, but only sparingly; only their fellow musicians are occasionally offered a peek behind the velvet curtain, or as has been the case with Mayhem's Attila Csihar, Earth, Boris, Ulver, and most recently, Scott Walker, are invited to collaborate with the duo. As a fan, when you watch Sunn play, you feel as though you've been given a glimpse into another world – the proverbial riff-filled land of smoke and mirrors.

It's an approach that's worked well for them, and elevated what could've just been one more eardrum-baiting drone band into something like a cult – beloved by the faithful, and more often than not, dismissed or outright scorned by their detractors. On their latest album, Kannon, O'Malley and Anderson step away from their chapel, and enter another's. Like so many before them who sought balance, peace, and understanding, they've now turned to the Buddha.

Heavy metal's interest in Eastern philosophy and religion stems from a greater tradition amongst Western rock bands, who have been ripping off Eastern scales and invoking the awesome power of Kali since the Beatles met their first guru. Doom bands in particular love a good lotus emblem, and even the most extreme musical entities are susceptible to falling under its spell; two standout examples in recent memory are Czech black metallers Cult Of Fire with last year's stellar मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान, and affiliated death metallers Death Karma's The History of Death & Burial Rituals Part I released this year pays tribute to Indian death rituals. That Eastern influence hangs heavily over Kannon, as was the band's intent; O'Malley has described this album as feeling "bright," which is a descriptor one would hardly find themselves able to attach to an album concerned with Satan or poisonous priests.

To Westerners raised up on sin and hellfire, some Eastern philosophies seem to exhibit a certain gentleness (at least in contrast to what I learned growing up Catholic), and in that respect, Kannon fully embraces its inspirations. The album is, put in the simplest of terms, quite a calming listen. Its three tracks lack many of drone's usual barriers to entry – the squalling feedback, the punishing drones, the improvised riffs that seem to lead to nowhere – that may have otherwise kept others at bay. Kannon also marks their first in a long line of releases to feature vocals on every track. It's not singing, of course, because that would be far too disruptive to the atmosphere that SunnO))) has worked so hard to create (though as we've seen with The Body's collaborations with The Assembly Of Light Choir, clean choral vocals can work a treat over this kind of lurching, tectonic doom). Here, the vocals issue forth from longtime collaborator (and legend in his own right) Attila Csihar, who utilises the full scope of his famously pliable vocal chords. His vocalisations range from a rattling hiss to a sepulchral groan, a ghostly murmur, a Gregorian-esque chant. Casihar is used sparingly, but is very much a part of the greater composition, especially on the ominous first track, 'Kannon I', where his basilisk's rasp echoes in the space between the bass strokes. His frequent live performances with Anderson and O'Malley have clearly set the three in tune with one another, and Csihar himself seldom sounds a fraction this menacing and otherworldly when he's howling on a blood-drenched stage with his band Mayhem. It's a perfect pairing, and elevates Kannon into high watermark status.

These two old friends and amplifier enthusiasts have spent decades refining – and then redefining – what 'drone' can be, and now, they've moved into a new phase in their existence as a band. It'd be a stretch to say that SunnO))) has mellowed in its old age (the project first got off the ground back in 1998), but their more recent output, like Kannon now and 2009's opulent, complex Monoliths & Dimensions has shown that the band is uninterested in remaining a one-trick pony, stirrings of which they first made clearest on 2005's black metal-inspired Black One, and have been teasing us with ever since.