Sunn O))) Kannon

[Southern Lord; 2015]

Styles: doom, drone metal
Others: Earth, Om, KTL, Goatsnake

Sunn O))) albums should be magic. In their previous work, they’ve accomplished great sorceries: they transported the listener to caverns deep within the earth and gigantic, fallen churches on Monoliths & Dimensions; on Black One, they buried us alive with a claustrophobic misanthrope and subjected us to the icy winds of the “The Cursed Realm of the Winterdemons;” even earlier cuts like “My Wall” from White1 saw Julian Cope building a fortress of magical protection, using the massive sound of Stephen O’Malley’s “gloom-axe” and Gregg Andersen’s “sonic doom” to forge the wall of the mythic Johnny Guitar. Where other efforts (and their celebrated live work) have focused on ambient mood and atmosphere to immerse the listener in cavernous spaces or to evoke massive structures, Kannon utilizes more concrete magical techniques. Although atmosphere remains a crucial element on Kannon, Sunn O))) here turns to deliberate repetition and mantra to invoke Kannon, a.k.a. Guanyin, a.k.a. the Iron Goddess of Mercy, a.k.a. the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. These techniques, crucial in various Asian mystical practices, provide a strong conceptual and structural basis for Kannon, but they ultimately undermine the most powerful elements of Sunn O)))’s musical paradigm, confining the magic of Kannon in a structure of limited musical possibility.

Directly connected with the worship of Kannon, mantra can be a powerful tool for inviting contact between the mind and a deity. We see this across spiritual schools, from the Catholic rosary to the Hindu Om syllable; new (and suspect) spiritual movements such as Transcendental Meditation (TM) and various guru-based New Age practices have capitalized on the brute power of repeating syllables and prayers, siphoning money from practitioners thirsting for more control over their wandering consciousness. In the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, Guanyin places a (circular) headband around the forehead of the unruly but immensely powerful mind-monkey Sun Wukong and gives his monk master the power to constrict or expand the headband at will in order to ease or inflict pain on the creature. This symbol reveals mantra’s primary function: to focus the mind, sometimes at the cost of great pain and difficulty. However, this image also illustrates that the practitioner must modulate the practice, because it is only by expanding the headband that the monk can unleash Sun Wukong’s great feats of strength and trickery. Then, the mantra is still present, but it fades into the background, more a piece of clothing for the mind than a tool for its control — a presence, but not a prison.

On Kannon, Sunn O))) keeps their headband tight for the majority of the album. It is only in rare instances when the mantra loosens and the central, repeated riff (or vocal line) fades into the background of the mix. “Kannon 1” features the same circular riff for its entire runtime, never allowing it to resolve tonally. Although this is perhaps conceptually interesting, it results in a structure that showcases little of Sunn O)))’s power of spectacle. Like Sun Wukong, they are capable of wielding the immense cudgel of the heavens, but they never discharge that power, confining the listener to contemplation of the repeating phrases. Repetition has always been a crucial technique in Sunn O)))’s repertoire to induce trance-states and immersion, but here it does the opposite. The constrictive phrases does not repeat enough times to induce a truly mystical state (of course, mantra meditation often takes years of practice to induce these states), nor does the repeated phrase continue long enough to contain significant content (there is a reason that mantras focus on words, despite some sects’ insistence that it is only the sound that matters). Instead, listeners are left in an early stage of contemplative practice, the stage that, until broken through, drives many seekers to other methods: boredom.

Not all of Kannon leaves us in this suspended, unfinished boredom. The repetitive structures on “Kannon 3” are much wider and more varied. Attila Csihar’s vast vocal range takes the fore, intoning his circular but lengthy lyrics in droning throat singing, withering shrieks, and deep chanting. It’s this multiplicity, so apparent on past efforts such as last year’s Soused with Scott Walker, that has allowed Sunn O))) to showcase their range, the variety of magical effects they are capable of producing. Much of Kannon feels like a retreat into their roots as beatless doom metal riffers, despite its stronger and more profound conceptual backing.

Indeed, multiplicity is an aspect of Kannon herself. As a being of compassion and mercy, the Buddha endowed her with 11 heads and a thousand arms so that she can comprehend the cries of the whole world and reach out to each person to remove their obstacles. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an alternate version of Kannon, could appear in any form (including any gender) required to relieve suffering. This mutable and multiple quality does not feature in Sunn O)))’s interpretation. Although the album’s concept should not itself be confining, making use of these elements could have benefited Kannon by showcasing a variety of forms of pain and mercy, which are as myriad as the people experiencing them. Instead, the three tracks all feel like continuations of the same idea, employing similar sounds, structures, and production techniques, resulting in an atypical similarity of mood across the surface of the album. Kannon’s methods never quite allow the goddess’ vast mercy to unfold in all its majesty; the album feels more like a devotional statue, with each piece carved out of the same static stone.

Ignoring the conceptual background, Kannon only achieves the very cusp of the transportative, magical power of past Sunn O))) albums. Where past works have sprawled over 15-plus minute tracks and sidelong compositions, Kannon’s short runtime inhibits immersion in the raw experience of the album. Although the band has emphasized the work’s focus on the enveloping immensity of mercy, the clipped runtime, crisp production, and faster tempos actually inhibit this envelopment. Of course, this makes Kannon the most approachable of all of their releases so far, garnering them praise from even the most mainstream of media outlets (the album premiered on Rolling Stone). But Sunn O)))’s greatest technique has always been transgression: of the boundaries of their instruments and musical forms, of the limits of music as a spatial and physical experience, of the confines of taste that insulate listeners from the dark frontiers of the human psyche. Kannon’s constrictive forms encourage its consumability, which prevents it from achieving the limit-transcending power of other works. It rarely rises out of the formal obstacles that Sunn O))) sets in its path; its imprecations to Kannon go unheard.

Still, the final track’s cavernous space, along with Csihar’s intense vocals, finally does evoke the immensity of a divinity, if only for a moment. Perhaps this is all the mercy that is available to us in these dark times: brief passages of transcendence amidst a sea of repetition. Perhaps the work of rising out of mere contemplation of the sea of miseries is our own responsibility, and mercy is only available to those who can find it even in boredom. But mercy, in the end, is the prerogative of power, and here Sunn O))) only rarely achieves the mythic grandeur to dispense it.

Links: Sunn O))) - Southern Lord

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