The new Sunn O))) album, Kannon (get it from Amazon), comes on the heels of two major collaborations—Soused, with vocalist and sonic explorer Scott Walker, and Terrestrials, with the impossible-to-pigeonhole Norwegian group Ulver. Each of these projects allowed Sunn O)))‘s main creative partners, Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, to reveal additional facets of the sonic edifice they’ve been constructing together for over 15 years. But it would be difficult to point to anything on either of those CDs that directly influenced, or anticipated, the music on Kannon, which is simultaneously an evolution of the Sunn O))) sound and a return to older forms.
The group’s last album entirely under its own name, 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, was a radical expansion of their musical palette. Its four tracks included multiple upright bassists; horns, reeds, and conch shells; vocal ensembles; piano; violin; and viola, and even saw Anderson and O’Malley abandoning the roaring, overdriven-amp sound that was their sonic trademark for cleaner, but no less repetitive and mantra-like, chords on the 16-minute closing piece, “Alice.” While their earliest material had taken doom metal to its logical conclusion, reducing it to nothing but endless hovering rumbles of guitar and bass, Monoliths & Dimensions (and their 2007 EP Oracle) demonstrated just how far they could stretch themselves, bringing in elements of jazz, modern classical, and even Einstürzende Neubauten-style industrial music, without losing their core identity or fundamental creative principles.
Kannon is significantly shorter than the 54-minute Monoliths, offering three tracks in 33 minutes, and its cast of characters is much smaller, too. Anderson and O’Malley are joined by vocalist Attila Csihar and guitarist Oren Ambarchi on all three pieces, and three synth players—Randall Dunn, Steve Moore and Rex Ritter—and percussionist Brad Mowen join the ensemble, mostly on the second piece. The three tracks are movements of a single large piece, and they sound like it; there’s a feeling that this is ritual music, intended to serve a larger spiritual purpose than mere entertainment, and as such there’s an austerity to it. The last track on Monoliths was a dedication to jazz composer Alice Coltrane, and Kannon is in some ways reminiscent of her later work, when she’d abandoned the commercial marketplace and was issuing limited-release cassettes, several of which have now been reissued on CD, of Sanskrit chanting and trance-like keyboard music. This is particularly true during “Kannon 2,” when Csihar can be heard singing in an almost liturgical, monklike manner (as opposed to his usual Laibach-esque croak) amid the synth drones and avalanche-like doom riffs.
Another possible influence on the sound of the album, though, might be O’Malley’s long-standing creative relationship with Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino. The two men—and Ambarchi—performed together in the trio Nazoranai in 2011 and 2012, and Haino and Ambarchi have been working together, with Jim O’Rourke, since 2009. The ascending chords O’Malley strikes on “Kannon 2,” and the particular storm-cloud distortion applied to his guitar, are pleasingly reminiscent of Fushitsusha in the early 1990s. And given Haino’s powerful, if highly individual, approach to spirituality and mysticism in his own music, it’s easy to imagine that rubbing off. On the third and final segment, O’Malley changes up his sound again, opting for an almost detuned metallic clang that’s more like what he did with the now-defunct doom quartet Khanate. Csihar’s vocals are very different on “Kannon 3” than they’ve been on any previous Sunn O))) track, too; while he doesn’t attain the screechy, witchy heights of Khanate frontman Alan Dubin, he’s in a much higher register than ever before for him.
Ultimately, though, this is a Sunn O))) album through and through. Anderson and O’Malley have been at this for over 15 years (The Grimmrobe Demos appeared in 1999), and they know what they’re doing. If they haven’t “perfected” or “mastered” their sound, it’s only because the nature of their music is such that it can never achieve a final, or even ideal, form. Every album and every live show is different, by design, and every Sunn O))) fan likely has a different favorite. (I think Oracle is shockingly underappreciated.) The core values—big, loud, heavy—are the only constants, and they’re embraced here to a greater degree than on Monoliths, Soused or Terrestrials. Kannon is short, but it’s highly concentrated.