Sunn O))) return after a one-off with Scott Walker and another with dark ambient innovators Ulver, and the result is nothing less than what you’d expect from the masters of spiritual buzz and drone. Led by Stephen O’ Malley and Greg Anderson, the group, along with fellow low frequency worshipers Earth, have redefined heavy music time and again since the band’s founding in 1998, causing critics to sputter and spurt and try in vain to develop a nomenclature that could capture the psychic and emotional depths of the music when, at the end of the ritual, the only thing that matters is that the soul has been elevated.
And there has been elevation to new heights across the oeuvre: White 1 and White 2 served as a point of entry for many and those epic, avant heights were enough to make us wonder how long a band that was so solidly enveloped in this particular genius could maintain such a run. But like the great minimalists before them, Anderson, O’Malley and their numerous collaborators have managed to seize upon opportunity and invention time and again. Black One proved a good way of continuing the exploration of these particular sound waves and the unit called upon Malefic of the almighty Xasthur and Wrest of the equally brilliant Leviathan to complete the mission. By 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions Sunn O)))’s reputation and audience had grown from kids who fetish over limited edition vinyl and cassettes to metal obsessives to fellow musicians to suburban dads who’d toss on headphones, roll a number and listen to The Grimrobe Demos while they mowed the lawn.
The improvisatory nature of the Ulver/Sunn O))) collaboration provided more chills and thrills than one might have expected, and the Scott Walker tapes were as black and disturbing as anything the lads had gotten up to at that point. With so much heaviness around one wonders how the planet has managed to remain in space and not go crashing through the floor of the universe. But we digress.
This return to the band’s core with collaborations from usual suspects Attila Csihar, Oren Ambarchi, Rex Ritter, and Steve Moore is as welcome as anything else Sunn O))) have released. The abstract, astral plane trifecta of the Kannon pieces is undeniable and one suspects that the spiritual connections these masters hold with their instruments and the frequencies which emanate are deeper and more remarkable than we could have imagined.
Kannon itself is explained as an aspect of the Buddha, a “goddess of mercy”, who can “perceive the cries of the world”. This is so central to the music that the band commissioned critical theorist Aliza Shvartz to pen liner notes that one might read while winding his/her way through these three tracks. These are, incidentally, best listened to while alone or in a deep state of calm where the subtle movements and intricacies can most fully reveal themselves and where time is neither of the essence or short. Ideally, one might lock themselves away with this for half a day or more, bathing in the wisdom and mystery that the music provides.
So what of the music, then? “Kannon 1” opens with guitars that sounded virtually triumphant, an invocation of the heavy muse an awakening that then shifts like tectonic (or is that Teutonic?) plates, molten lava, an ice shove, toward a deeper awakening, one that is benevolent but perhaps sinister, a deeper darkness lurking beneath light that is neither dying nor fading but instead becoming its other. All of this as vocals shove their way through the center like an ice pick through the bottom of a foot. It is a sharp and formidable penetration that also calls for transformation of the spirit. And indeed by midway through the track one finds themselves enlightened and unafraid of this new becoming, assured that this new path is the right one. And then a change: we enter the second phase of the Kannon and behold a visceral rumbling, another shift toward this new light, this tempered light, this maze of distortion and feedback that is paramusical, paradimensional and deeply spiritual. If you were to find yourself shouting, “Behold!” as the music gives rise to a Catholic-style chant in the piece’s center, if you were to find yourself gliding toward something you momentarily believed to be enlightenment, then perhaps you are on the path toward the Sunn.
Of course all of this talk about the spiritual and the like is not pretension. This is the purpose of Sunn O))), a worship of heavy things and that worship is evident in the moments of reflection which take place just as the piece ends, when the buzz and drone fall away to a shimmering path of reflection, one which demands reverence as we enter into our third and final passage of transformation, a solemn and deep foray into the soul reborn, a magical and darkly pastoral haven for the transformed.