Sunn O))) – ‘Kannon’

Seattle experimentalists go back to basics on a rumbling, droning seventh album

For a group founded around the premise of turning heavy metal into something as slow, deep and tunes-light as possible, Seattle’s SunnO))) have gone a remarkable distance. The group – an open-ended ensemble, but based around the core duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson – have now turned out approaching a dozen albums and collaborations, winning the fealty of rock titans such as Julian Cope and Scott Walker along the way.

Why have this difficult, experimental group endured so? Perhaps because they have elevated their droning, deconstructed rock into a sort of high theatre. Live, they take to the stage in flowing Druidic robes, bowing before groaning amplifiers and with attendant vocalist Atilla Csihar typically dressed up like a cross between Satan himself and the gardening section of your local Homebase. Two-and-a-half minutes into Kannon’s opening ‘Kannon 1’, Csihar ghosts in with a hideous croak that turns your blood to ice. There are no drums, and no discernable lyrics – just 13-odd minutes of dirge-like riffing and Csihar’s infernal gibbering – but in its glacial pacing and black mass grandeur, it’s got everything that makes SunnO))) remarkable.

Yet dig further into ‘Kannon’ and you get the sense this is a kind of back-to-basics excursion for SunnO))). 2009’s Monoliths And Dimensions was an elaborate, affair that featured French horns, tubular bells and a Viennese women’s choir. Last year’s Scott Walker collaboration ‘Soused’ took things even further – an elaborate metal opera pitched right at the brink of nervous breakdown. But clocking in at just 33 minutes, though, ‘Kannon’ feels comparatively slight, giving O’Malley and Anderson just enough time to reaffirm the basics of their sound.

So, ‘Kannon 2’ is accompanied by solemn chanting and what sounds like the ringing of chimes. ‘Kannon 3’, meanwhile, embraces a clanging desert-rock quality, with Csihar exploring the rumbling tones of Tibetan throat singing and some guitar parts that feel almost heroic in their sky-shooting trajectory. But ultimately, this is tinkering around the edges of a formula rather than a bold stylistic shift – and while this makes ‘Kannon’ an easy disc to recommend to newcomers, ultimately it goes nowhere SunnO))) haven’t gone before.