Sunn 0))) on their most conceptual album yet
Having dragged heavy metal to the outer limits and far beyond, Washington drone lords Sunn O))) unleash a new sound.
For 17 years, Sunn O))) have very slowly boiled metal down to its base essence, reasserting the elemental power of the music by focusing on its fundaments of bass and volume. In so doing, duo Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley, adorned in robes befitting such ceremony, worship the source of such power: Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, whose riffs remain a defining statement.
Not only does the all-consuming nature of their sound nod to the past, it pushes the music forwards, taking metal to one of its many possible extremes, the final word in low-end sonic disturbance, the extension and manipulation of the form until the music loses any traditionally recognisable shape. It becomes mantra, a transcendental soundscape of sufficient might and magnitude that their gravity slows more than their deliberate anti-tempos. It even seems to slow time itself, consuming listeners within a realm of altered perception, and making Sunn O))) darlings of not only metal’s avant-garde, but of the wider experimental music scene.
What started off as a love for music shared between Greg and Stephen has grown into something unfathomably liberating. Its roots lie within humble beginnings in their home-town of Seattle, a hotbed of musical innovation that instilled within them the notion that music could be whatever they wanted it to be.
“Growing up in Seattle there were all these people who were pushing the boundaries of music in all directions, not just metal,” Greg reminisces. “Who knows? If we’d grown up somewhere else, in an environment not as sympathetic to musical experimentation, maybe Sunn O))) wouldn’t exist.”
New record Kannon, named after the Buddhist deity of mercy, is a three-track triptych, a sonic landscape best appreciated when permitted to wipe the slate of conscious thought clean, setting the imagination free as the elaborate paucity of composition washes over you in leaden waves. It is a sparser affair than its predecessor, 2009’s Monoliths And Dimensions, or the two collaborations that followed in 2014: Terrestrials, co-written with Ulver, and Soused, with legendary songwriter Scott Walker.
To imagine how one might go about creating such aural environs conjures up all kinds of alchemy. “I guess there’s some intuition and telepathy that happens between Stephen and I and it grows out of that,” suggests Greg, self-deprecatingly. “There are no premeditated ideas. Monoliths... started out similar, but was developed in a way more complicated way by bringing on extra instrumentation and embracing different musical theories and concepts. With Kannon there are elements of that, but it’s a little more stripped down. It’s reflective of the live shows we’ve been doing over the last four years, especially with Attila Csihar and his vocal contribution to the group.”
Attila, notorious for his role fronting the true lords of black metal chaos, Mayhem, ever bedecked in elaborate, otherworldly onstage garb, has had an indelible impact on the direction of Sunn O))) that cannot be underestimated, bringing not only his metaphysically compelling presence to their stage, but the depths of his creative insight. Could two now be a three?
“Attila’s involvement has been a very important influence on the direction of our music and this album is the pinnacle of that,” affirms Greg. “His involvement on Monoliths... was important, but it wasn’t as much of a collaboration as this. He’s played every single show we’ve done over the last eight years or so. His style, his aesthetic and what he brings to the group has really influenced the direction and where we went with Kannon.
“Attila came up with the concept,” he continues. “He’s a fascinating person; he’s interested in a lot of subjects. He has a lot more depth than people perceive. I could not be giving people a lot of credit, but there’s a lot of sensationalism with Mayhem, and I know that if you look into what they’re doing it is deeper than that, but the perception of Attila is that he’s this Satanic character from the black metal scene. I see him as something deeper.”
Attila’s vocal dexterity is unsettling. Within Kannon he’s a near-subliminal force, each serpentine hiss, every ululated rasp coiling around the elongated musical notes, dancing in and out of light and shade, a malefic smoke to consume the mind: less a vocal performance than an instrument in and of itself. “Exactly,” agrees Greg, “that was definitely something we thought would be interesting to focus on. Every record that we’ve done as far as vocals, they were mostly brought in after the fact. With this album the three of us worked together. The vocals were performed with the music.”