For the first five decades of its existence or so, heavy metal was perceived as one of the most primitive musical forms, second perhaps only to punk. It was the soundtrack of tall boys, tight pants, raised trucks, and torn denim – the exact opposite of cultured.
Metal has gotten downright cerebral in the 21st Century, as a number of brainy individuals sought out to blend the brawn of downtuned guitars through eight-foot amplifiers with any number of intellectual pursuits.
The cowled duo of Gregg Anderson & Stephen O’ Malley, as Sunn O))), are largely responsible for the intellectualization of heavy metal, without ever losing the force, the pure beating power of the electric guitar. Rather, they turned metal on its head, slowing it down to a tectonic crawl, transforming bestial Black Sabbath riffs into an unholy black mass of bass frequencies that are more like weather patterns or continental drift than songs.
Over the course of their career, Sunn O))) have incorporated the atonal minimalism and repetition of 20th Century classical composers, like Ligeti, Gorecki, Arvo Pärt, along with the outré jazz of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, industrial music, and noise.
This potent brew came to a head on the appropriately-titled Monoliths & Dimensions, Sunn O)))’s last full-blown feature length LP before spinning off into a series of collaborations. M&D arc-welded Sunn O)))’s signature bass drones to the spiritual cosmic jazz of Alice Coltrane, via the avant-garde trombone of Sun Ra Arkestra member Julian Priester. It was more like an orchestra pit than a mosh pit.
Kannon finds Sunn O))) processing their spiritual investigations, while getting back to their roots. First of all, Kannon may be the shortest Sunn O))) record to date – the eponymous track, broken up into three moments.
Kannon is not short on the theoretical underpinning, as usual, being based on the Buddhist notion of mercy. The tracks represent three phases: “invocation”, “intonation”, and “perpetuation”.
The album is credited solely to Sunn O))), but is the product of a large cast of some of avant-metal’s guiding lights. Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar returns again, delivering an elegy of whispers, moans, groans, and traditional Tibetan throat singing, greatly lending to the ritualistic feeling. Kannon also features fellow six-string heavyweight Oren Ambarchi, along with longtime collaborator Randall Dunn, who produces and plays synth, along with Brad Mowen on percussion, Rex Ritter on additional synth, and a brass trio of Julian Priester, replying his role as cosmic priest on Monoliths & Dimensions. Stuart Dempster of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band, and Tony Moore.
With no track-by-track breakdown, it’s impossible to tell who does what, which instrument is responsible for which growling, throbbing drone or fizzing, shrieking overtone. Gregg Anderson’s guitar is identifiable, and tasty as ever, serving as a melodic entrance to the ritual, as is Csihar’s whisper. Apart from that, all sounds meet in a maelstrom of undulating frequencies, to serve one central purpose.
This idea seems to be reinforced by the Iron Throne-like modern art sculpture that adorns Kanon’s cover. Unidentified metal objects have been melted down to form a kind of stainless steel meteorite. All the pieces coming together, to serve one purpose, and losing themselves in the process.
Kannon starts off as a downtuned crawl through the dust, and becomes an act of selfless dedication and devotion to the sound. And while some reviewers have dismissed Kannon as a “minor Sunn O))) record”, I don’t think so. It seems like Anderson & O’ Malley had an idea they wanted to pursue and did so, quick and dirty. It’s like a doom metal, crust punk kirtan that just goes to show that metal doesn’t have to be dumb, and music doesn’t have to be fast to be hardcore.
— Words by J Simpson