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.

SUNN 1

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.

SUNN 2

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.

SUNN 3

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.

Scott Walker + Sunn O))): Soused

Soused

It’s all in the name: “Soused.” Plunged. Immersed. Soaked, in thunder and dark images. Obsessions and digressions, twisting themselves into knots. Two great musical rivers—Scott Walker and Sunn O)))—finally made one dark record together. Don’t think you’ll have an easy listen with “Soused” (4AD, 2014). This one is difficult.

Just when you thought your exploration of their music couldn’t get more daunting, you’re faced with the sheer power of Sunn O)))’s guitars, which on their own produce enough emotion to overpower even the most compelling lyrics. And while Scott Walker has been drifting for years toward a more operatic vocal approach, allowing for periods of calm better suited to soft orchestral landscapes, he still needs his gothic baritone voice to dominate here, adding his distinctive overtones to every song.

And yet, as the ultimate super group of darkness, Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley found a way to balance their egos and desires to make a meaningful, if one-time, statement together. I like what they’ve done with the place, but a huge question lingers: Just how many times will I want to listen to this record?

The music press is understandably beside itself over “Soused.” Why did this happen? Why did it take so long to happen? Is there any way to confirm how this record came to be made, or who approached whom? Is there any point in speculating? Maybe a better question would be: Is this a meeting of equals? Both Scott Walker and Sunn O))) are journeymen artists, though not of the same generation. Both have succeeded in carving out distinctive experimental music spaces for themselves. Both share a lean aesthetic. The best Sunn O))) records (and tracks) have minimal or no lyrics, with guitars alone carrying the full weight of their intended expression. Their treatments play tricks on the mind. For example, it’s easy to think of ØØ Void (2000) as having lyrics, or “Monoliths & Dimensions” (2009) as being a seamless blending of their version of traditional religious/archaic/choral/chant music sung by metal monks, who happen to play extremely loud guitars when they pray. Scott Walker has been building ensemble bands for years to create difficult-to-define soundscapes for each of his records. His voice, his lyrics, which swing between avant-garde poetry and traditional song lyrics, drive the direction and texture of each record. They speak: Sunn O))) with guitars, Scott Walker with voice and poetry.

Scott + Sunn O)))

Ours being an age of extremes in art, a golden age of violence porn in film and in music, means the sadomasochistic and violent (self-harming?) undertones of “Soused” (how many people write songs inspired by the legend of Herod the Great and hiding their babies?) must certainly be exciting to many. Lines like “A beating would do me a world of good” (from the opening song, “Brando”), or “Red, blade points knife the air./All night he sees it constellating his thought….” (from the song, “Fetish”), cut two ways, both obsessional and disturbed (serial killer?), as well as guilt-driven puritanical (sinner?). Just how deeply you want to allow these images in is the question. For the artist, creation is an imperative, regardless of where it springs from or where it leads. For a listener, it’s about choice—do we want to go there, too, when we don’t have to?

Years ago Scott Walker said in an interview that he doesn’t write songs for pleasure, and none of the songs on “Soused” could be accused of cheer. Which makes this a heavy record celebrating dark human impulses and desires. It’s a meditation on being plunged into psychological spaces some might find too challenging to visit. I suppose it’s a bit like the brief but elemental poetic enigma first expressed by the Roman poet Catullus: “I hate and I love. Why? I do not know.”

In art, sometimes we get just the questions. This meeting of two rivers is now complete. What they’ve left behind is a dark puzzle that will grow only more complex. Art fuels art. A record from Scott Walker and Sunn O))) was probably inevitable, given their shared affinities. Speaking as a fan, I’m glad to have witnessed this meeting of minds, of rivers, but I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to listen to some of these songs. Some records are simply difficult.