2016 Big Ears Festival: Sunn O)))

Sunn O))) Kannon
Sunn O)))’s version of metal just got a whole lot more experimental, which makes them appropriately one of the headliners for this year’s Big Ears Festival (3/31 through 4/2/2016) in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sunn O))) also just got a whole lot more theological by adding a Buddhist theme to their newest release, “Kannon” (Southern Lord, 2015), an album that inadvertently explores a favorite Buddhist warning about desire and its inevitable destination: suffering. In this case, the suffering comes from too much emphasis on explaining themselves rather than simply doing what they do best, creating amazing drone metal soundscapes, and leaving us all to get on with our appreciation and individual interpretation of their mastery. Theirs has always been a kind of monastic worship of doom metal, complete with hooded robes, their guitars at times like the voices of monks chanting, solitary, inside their private world of solid walls of sound.


On one hand, the band appears to be doing what it always does by performing a cycle of interlocking guitar-driven compositions, this time collectively called “Kannon,” Parts 1-3, performed loud, raw, open, and richly textured. The entire album clocks in faster than some of their earlier studio offerings, around 33 minutes. They’ve also incorporated thematic lyrics, sung in a dense drone fashion by Attila Csihar, with words that connect their signature wall of sound with ancient historical and theological ideas of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, of the nature of suffering, and of sound perception as a vehicle to access the world’s lamentations.

To aid us in getting up and over all these etymological and cultural hurdles, the band commissioned several sculptures by Swiss designer/artist Angela Bollinger, lavishly photographed and reproduced on the cover and inside the gatefold jacket. These jet black crystalline forms seem to bow before and absorb all light. They also commissioned a lengthy, super dense technical essay, “Kannon/Canon,” by the controversial theorist Aliza Shvarts.


Had Sunn O))) made their starting point as a band one of Buddhist teaching through the use of loud electric guitars, I suspect the layers of high-level textual explanation wouldn’t be as necessary at this point in their career. We’d already be expecting another loud Buddhist koan. But it feels like Shvarts’ essay is out of place here, working too hard to connect a band with the Buddhist concepts behind the great perceiver of sound with emptiness, phonic excess with drone guitars, and feminism.

In the end, it’s about the music, and the evolution of the artistic partnership between Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson. Over the years their interests, artistic and collaborative goals, and commercial expansion into more than one successful record label have grown far beyond the scope of Sunn O))). The arrival of “Kannon” feels affirming that this legendary band will continue to come together from time to time, take risks and explore new ground as these artists mature.


However, it’s tempting to consider how this record would feel had the band not taken so many steps to explain and illustrate their intent in the gatefold. Their music, like meditation itself, seems designed to lead the listener to open up to new states of awareness and emotional response. Their guitars have always been a kind of chant, freed of cultural baggage and burdens. If you insist, their ongoing koan remains something more elemental: the search for something more intuitive, an authentic dialogue through guitars that needs no language or definition or defense to make its case.

“Kannon” succeeds in illustrating the progression of two pioneers of the art form. As an experiment in Buddhist teaching, the rewards remain too complex and just out of reach.