In recent years Sunn O)))’s recorded output has been mostly limited to collaborative works. The bescumbered escapades of Soused, their album with Scott Walker, opened the band’s drones and Walker’s scatological lyrics to a whole new audience, whilst collaborations with Ulver, Pan Sonic and Nurse With Wound gave the band opportunities to explore new pastures whilst retaining their identity.
On paper, Kannon is the first non-collaborative Sunn O))) effort since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions, but a quick scan down the list of contributors suggests that it is, in reality, very much a group effort. As usual, co-producer Randall Dunn is on board, and once again long-term vocalist Attila Csihar lends his gurgled growl to proceedings. Also on board are Rex Ritter and Oren Ambarchi, amongst others.
However, the concept of Kannon as a whole relies, not just on the drones and tones of Grimmrobe mainstays Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, but also the commissioned art of Angela LaFont Bollinger, whose sculptures grace the cover, and the liner notes of Aliza Shvartz (whose piece about Sunn O))) for The Brooklyn Rail, entitled Black Wedding, is well worth a read). The presence of Shvartz and Bolinger are absolutely necessary to provide Kannon with the kind of scope that is expected from Sunn O))). Shvartz’s essay on the nature of duality, metal, gender, space and void might well be impenetrable at times, but these subjects lie at the heart of Sunn O))) and within the nature of this album in particular.
Kannon takes its name from the Buddhist Goddess of mercy, and is essentially a three-movement offering on behalf of the band that is, by turns, a prayer, an invocation, and in the case of Kannon II, something of a homage to doom metal. Where it differs from the band’s previous work is in its directness. At a little over 30 minutes’ running time, Kannon is a relatively short, concise work, which sees the band not at their most “metal” as has been suggested (with the exception of elements of the aforementioned Kannon II), but at their most focussed. Sunn O))) tend to cloak themselves and their intentions be it with robes, layers of distortion, volume, or clouds of thick smoke, but here everything seems to be laid bare. Even the colossal shifting chords and bass notes that are Sunn O)))’s calling card seem to be cleaner than usual and delivered with a keen accuracy that was previously only hinted at. This is not to say that Kannon as a whole is not capable of causing nosebleeds at the right volumes, there are tones here (particularly when the main trio synch up perfectly) that can do real damage, but the brutality of the band’s sound seems to have been pared back a little.
Kannon I finds the band at their most meditative and joyous. The high register guitar squalls that wrap around Attila’s reptile-in-ecstasy vocals feel positively heavenly. Listen closely to Kannon II and behind the feedback and Slayer in treacle riffs there seems to be a brief flirtation with sleigh bells before it develops into a doom-laden Gregorian chant that fizzles out in curious fashion, rather than reach for epiphany. Final track reaches back into the band’s history and reworks an old track “Cannon” giving it a different and new form of existence, albeit a somewhat stripped back and oddly distant interpretation. Certainly the oscillations, pulses and drones are all present, but there’s an almost clinical feel to the playing and production that is at odds with the organic, unfurling beauty of the version from 2008. Kannon is most certainly the shortest and most precise Sunn O))) offering to date, but brevity doesn’t mean there’s a lack of quality here, just a slightly different approach.
This is still a solid offering that initially might feel a little lacking in depth and scope, but all the elements are in place. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kannon is that, although it is officially the first Sunn O))) album since 2009, it’s the collaborative nature of the whole that makes it work on a conceptual level. Its concise nature, glossy finish and sense of clarity (something that even extends to the band photography) suggest that, as strange as it might seem, this is not a return to Sunn O)))’s metal roots, but is instead, for all intents and purposes, their pop album.