In his 2006 New York Times Magazine profile on the band, rock journalist John Wray depicted a Sunn O))) live show as a space of unlikely communion between heshers and indie-rock nebbishes. According to the band’s Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, both veteran metal guitarists, both sects were drawn by Sunn O)))‘s intense purity of sound, as kvlt as it was avant-garde.
A decade later, the cross-pollination of metal and indie rock is old news (cf. blackened shoegazers Deafheaven, whose metal bona fides are still hotly debated among the faithful), but Sunn O))) remains a limit-case of sonic extremism. Already infamous for straining nearby fuse boxes and intestinal tracts, the band’s live performances are spectacles of smoldering brutality: In front of a ziggurat of vintage Sunn amps and behind dense synthetic fog, the cloaked principals and their collaborators deliver tectonic sustains of layered, low-frequency noise to pious crowds who, as O’Malley described to Wray, show up for the physical experience, despite a complete absence of discernible rhythm.
O’Malley and Anderson’s blunt singlemindedness on stage is often counterbalanced by formalist nuance on record.
O’Malley and Anderson’s blunt singlemindedness on stage is often counterbalanced by formalist nuance on record. From the black-metal deconstruction of their 2005 breakout, Black One, to the stentorian lushness of 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions, O’Malley and Anderson’s deceptively simple, glacial guitar concept of expanding guitar tones to their glacial limit has yielded unforeseen textural and structural variety. Their eighth album, Kannon, however, leans closer to their live minimalism. It’s trisected into numbered, eponymous parts, each conforming to the same basic formula, in which a simple, detuned, agonizingly slow riff cycles ad nauseam through surging squalls of feedback. Mixed by Randall Dunn with the same robustness and clarity he brought to the comeback output of drone demigods Earth, Kannon is far from primitive. But each track plateaus at roughly the same density, volume, and key, effectively congealing into a single bulbous, molten mass of sound.
Kannon is a one-trick pony, but the trick is a pretty good one. Unlike last year’s similarly predictable Soused, O’Malley and Anderson’s collaboration with fellow apocalyptist Scott Walker, Kannon doesn’t flatten Sunn O))) into shorthand for an established brand. The compositions are overtly static, but subtly purposeful, rewarding patient, careful listening. It should go without saying that Kannon demands proper, fat-bottomed speakers, without which the goose-fleshed thrill of Anderson’s smoldering bass, O’Malley’s squealing guitar, and singer Attila Csihar’s Olympian leaps between the monastic, the guttural, and the shrill amounts to undifferentiated, doomy doggerel. No surprise that “heady metal” rose concomitantly with a music culture dominated by earbuds and digital generation loss.
O’Malley’s archetypal “physical” fan—the kind who stands right up front, excitedly wondering, “Can I take it? Will I wet my pants? Will I puke?”—might not care much about fidelity and nuance. But Sunn O)))‘s staying power owes something to their progression past minimalist novelty. Reducing metal to its demonic essence is merely a starting point. The climactic “Kannon 3” interpolates a descending central chord progression with dusty sighs of midrange reverb, and builds periodically to high-pitched, tantric crescendos, before returning and repeating. As a piece, Kannon is neither as terrifying nor formally adventurous as O’Malley, Anderson, and their many friends have been historically, together and apart. But in moments like these, it’s hard not to admire their beatific integrity anyway, and, at a high enough volume, surrender to it completely.