Turning Hell into Paradise
The liner notes for Kannon (观世音), the first proper Sunn O))) release since 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions, include a call to action: “PRACTICE LIFE METAL : SAVE THE PLANET.” This new motto from the “MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS” guys may seem tongue-in-cheek at first glance, but to be fair, the planet does need saving, right? And who’s to say that Sunn O)))’s ever-evolving drone doom/power ambient sound isn’t the balm for the job?
Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson have carried the torch lit by Dylan Carlson since they first donned the Grimmrobes in 1999. An impressive burden, that. And they have consistently delivered on their responsibility, almost singlehandedly guiding the evolution of drone music at large with patience and bravery. Kannon is no exception to the rule. In fact, it may be the greatest leap forward for drone thus far.
Perfectly reconciling the composure and wide scope of Monoliths and Dimensions with the frugality of the first few Sunn O))) releases, Kannon is a pensive masterpiece. With all due respect to its creators, the record seems delivered by angels, demons and ghosts, rather than by mere musicians. But perhaps sixteen years of sympathetic resonance and extreme volume have actually transported them to some new plane of existence. A place where the corporeal and ethereal can interface freely, vibrating like all get-out and producing sounds heretofore unimagined.
Or maybe they’re just mere musicians. Really, really masterful mere musicians.
In any case, longtime collaborator Attila Csihar’s voice sounds, by turns, mummified (“Kannon1”) and monastic (“Kannon2”), lending both an air of decay and a breath of rebirth to the record. Fitting, then, that the lyrics – three distinct meditations on the album’s namesake, the Guanyin Boddhisatva (the Mahayana equivalent of the Sanskrit Goddess of Mercy, Avalokiteśvara) – are gloriously revenant and celebratory, even when they invoke images of doom, death and disaster. Painfully beautiful passages such as “She played such music / Flowers blossomed / And turned hell / Into paradise” are so perfectly paired with the thunder wrought by O’Malley, Anderson and company as to be tear-jerking. Even when his multi-tracked, Billy the Mountain-esque death rattle turns to a rasping black metal shriek (“She destroys mortality”) for the climactic passages of “Kannon3” (a tighter, leaner version of 2008’s “Cannon”) Csihar sounds intent on vanquishing evil and, yes… saving the planet.
Calling Kannon the first instance of “modal doom” would not be out of the question. Compositionally, each track follows a similar pattern. First, a drone is established, followed by a unique theme which, in all three instances, is uncharacteristically easy to follow… catchy, even. In particular, the soaring theme of “Kannon2,” which seems engineered to reach the ears of Guanyin herself, is a try-not-to-whistle-this earworm of the highest order. Finally, every piece culminates in roughly a minute of positively triumphant feedback before decaying (“Kannon1”), oscillating at a low frequency on some sort of wire or spring (“Kannon2”) or simply switching off in true Sunn O))) fashion (“Kannon3”).
The words “Sunn O)))’s pop record” have been thrown around lately, and while there is plenty of truth in that assessment – Kannon is more melodic, more structured and clocks in at only 33 minutes (possibly in tribute to the 33 manifestations of Guanyin in the Lotus Sūtra) – it does little to convey just how transcendent the album is. Like Angela Bolliger’s sculpture on the cover – also a depiction of the Guanyin Boddhisatva – this record is, at first glance, a dangerous, hulking, sharp-edged beast from which little to no light can return. But just as Bolliger’s sculpture transforms at different angles and under different light, Kannon transforms with repeated listens and a proper reading of the lyrics into a goose bump-inducing monolith of hope, radiance and new life. And though it may not have the power to save the planet, it will at least serve as a brilliant soundtrack for the apocalypse.