How Sunn O)))’s Subversive Metal Birthed An Album With A Buddhist Heart

by Ezra Buckley on February 17, 2017

This past February, the Brooklyn Rail published an essay on black metal by the critical theorist and artist Aliza Shvarts. “Metal is an overwhelmingly white and heteromasculinist subculture,” she wrote. “Yet as such, it offers something useful to a prurient queer feminist interest…metal is a relevant site to dark radical queers and feminists precisely because it is usually not for us but about us.” She proceeds her argument not by decrying sexism in metal music, but rather by singling out of one the genre’s more avant-garde outfits, Sunn O))). As she sees it, the band—a remote project between Paris-based guitarist Stephen O’Malley and Los Angeles-based bassist Greg Anderson—has been queering metal itself, subverting rather than entrenching patriarchy.

Shvarts isn’t alone in this outlook. Sunn O))) have developed a steady fan base as a metal band that doesn’t play to the conventionalities of the genre. Instead, their music has long been characterized by their meditations on distorted guitar chords, a sound much indebted to the raga work of the drone music pioneer La Monte Young. The band’s percussion-less compositions have no discernible verse or chorus structure, yet typically push past the ten minute mark. One such track, a 20-minute instrumental dedicated to jazz legend Alice Coltrane, features trombones and major chords held until their natural dissipation. The latter, especially, is a common trait of the band. In a genre largely dominated by stomping rhythms and chaotic speed, Sunn O))) rewards those who are willing to immerse themselves in their patient music.

For the band’s seventh studio album—titled Kannon, their first in six years—O’Malley had turned the band’s attention to the calm and merciful manner of the Buddha. “[In Buddhist teaching] ‘Kannon’ is the aspect that hears the suffering of the universe and then transforms that energy into compassion and relief,” O’Malley tells me during an interview in Brooklyn’s East River Park. He adds that Kannon is usually depicted in Zen teachings as a female Buddha. It was during the band’s exploration of this concept back in February that Shvarts’ article was published. One of the things she argued is that the immersive quality inherent in Sunn O)))’s music has more in common with the sounds of reproductive labor—“it’s magic, horror, and drone”—than the industrial, mechanized sound that is more common to metal. It is in this deviation from the status quo that Shvarts sees Sunn O)))’s power. O’Malley was impressed with Shvarts’ ideas and he invited her to expand on them in an essay that would become the liner notes to Kannon. In turn, the record grew into a triptych of mantra-like compositions that subvert common notions of metal music—dark distorted guitars, howling vocals, tightly threaded song partitions—by channeling them into amorphicity.

“We’ve worked with concepts before,” says O’Malley, “but we’ve never gone this deep with one.” Black One (2005), he explains, challenged the aesthetic confines of black metal, while Monoliths and Dimensions (2009) instigated a conversation between distorted drone and orchestral arrangement. Kannon doesn’t just further Sunn O)))’s philosophical investigations into metal, it’s an inquiry into the band’s continued existence. It was largely developed during the band’s live shows, the only time its two core members ever see each other. Though they founded Sunn O))) in their hometown of Seattle in 1998, O’Malley and Anderson have lived in different cities since 2001, with O’Malley residing for many years in New York, and now in Paris, and Anderson raising a family in Los Angeles. “Playing with Stephen and keeping this band going,” says Anderson over the phone from his L.A. home, “has been one of the most awesome challenges in my life.”

In eschewing the meticulousness of their previous studio albums for a more raw and stripped sound, Kannon demonstrates the quintessence of Sunn O))). O’Malley and Anderson slowly churn guitar chords as Hungarian vocalist Attila Csihar—who also appeared on Monoliths and Dimensions—delivers snarling and rapturous incantations. Both members acknowledge that Kannon largely matured with Csihar as the fulcrum. “In the last four or five years our live show has kind of turned from a wall of fog into a triangle with Attila in the foreground,” says O’Malley. Csihar and Shvarts are just two of the contributors on Kannon’s personnel, which also includes longtime producer Randall Dunn, Moog player Steve Moore, and experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi, amongst others.

Here, Anderson and O’Malley tell the story of Kannon and the continued evolution of Sunn O))) in their own words.

Greg Anderson, Sunn O))) Photo by Peter Best

 

Stephen O’Malley, Sunn O))) Photo by Peter Bes

 

O’Malley: Kannon originated from a demo I made in New York in 2006. Greg was into it, and we slowly began introducing early versions of that material into our sets.

Anderson: An early version of “Kannon 3” is actually on our live album Dømkirke (Dome Curve, 2008), that was recorded at the Bergen Cathedral in Norway.

O’Malley: On Dømkirke, it’s called “Cannon” with a C, which carries a different meaning than when it’s spelled with a K. It’s been part of our live set for a few years now.

Anderson: Compositionally, Kannon represents we’ve been doing live over the last eight years. Whereas the other records were really developed and created in the studio, this record was most inspired by and developed through our performances. And one of the great impacts of our live show has been to work with Attila Csihar, who has become, sort of, our vocalist. Our last couple records have been sort of half-vocal, half-instrumental pieces where this album is really more stuff that we were developing live, and that including his parts as well. He’s participated in developing these songs from the beginning.

O’Malley: Attila’s totally integrated into the reality of the live band, and we had worked together on Dømkirke and Monoliths and Dimensions. The one track we kept instrumental on that album is “Alice,” which is a tribute to Alice Coltrane. Funny anecdote about that song: I met that dude Flying Lotus at the Oya Festival in Oslo this past summer. It had this crazy backstage with a massage parlor, a hair salon, and a swimming pool. We all got our beards trimmed at the salon, and he was sitting next to me getting a haircut. I didn’t recognize him, but he recognized me. He was like “Hey, you’re Sunn O))) right? I really liked your tribute to my aunt!” I thought it was cool that he knew about it, and he seemed equally grateful it existed. “Alice” was also how Soused (4AD, 2013) happened; I’d sent Scott Walker the recording and we batted around the idea of having him put vocals on it. That didn’t happen, but then you know, we ended up making a whole album with him later on. Attila wasn’t involved with the Soused sessions, but he was incredibly gracious about stepping aside and letting us work with Scott. I think that experience made us all more confident in what we were doing, maybe more ambitious. Maybe it has also given us a chance to feature Attila as the frontman in the next step of our evolutionary process.

“In the late ‘90s, it was a much more rigid and narrow-minded community. If you didn’t dress a certain way, or play a certain way, than you weren’t metal.”—Grey Anderson, Sunn O)))

Anderson: [Making] Kannon has been a useful way to investigate our sound and to stretch and morph these songs in ways we might not have done had we recorded them all in a studio. It’s kind of ironic that this album reflects our live sound, because at first we weren’t sure if the band was going to continue to play live—we thought we might just turn this into a studio project. So when we did decide to keep playing live, that aspect of Sunn O))) really took on a life of its own. We tried to keep those elements somewhat loose as far what we were going to do, and what we were going to play, and we were open to possibilities about where to go with the music, in order to keep us going.

O’Malley: When we took this stuff into the studio to record it, we wanted to present it in a way that our people could provoke a discussion with something other than just the music. Aliza’s essay on feminism in metal was a big part of that. There’s a huge sexist problem in metal—“problem” isn’t the right word, it’s traditionally a sexist culture—but the way Aliza broached the topic of sexism in metal, and put a feminine spin on our own music, was pretty original and refreshing. No one had approached our work with this perspective. So I reached out to her about contributing liner notes. There she discusses this idea of [our sound] from the perspective of feminist and Buddhist thought, how it [immerses the listener] in an all-encompassing feminine embrace—you’re within—as opposed to a more masculine, a more directional, opposal way of thinking.

I’m not the most scholarly person on this subject, but that way of thinking interests me. I’m not calling this our “Buddhist record,” but we wanted to give Kannon a twist, to present something that has a little bit more of a philosophical angle. Why don’t we take this intense, brutal consuming sound, and present it as a sort of merciful, almost relief, music? Attila took this Buddhist concept and worked it into the language and voice. His way of looking at things is very visual, event-based, and phenomenological, where every line is very rich and poetic.

Anderson: Attila’s pretty great at pulling from a wide variety of influences that can range from a David Icke book to a Diamanda Galas record. The imagery of his lyrics are as much a part of the concept as everything else.

“Why don’t we take this intense, brutal consuming sound, and present it as a sort of merciful, almost relief, music?”—Stephen O’Malley, Sunn O)))

O’Malley: There’s a hope that there might be some reaction to this concept from the East. We have a lot of fans in Asia, like in China, but we’ve never played there. I don’t even know what it’s like. There’s a lot of people who think of concepts like [the ones explored on Kannon] on a daily basis, but probably less so here than there; in many Asian countries, it’s a fundamental thing. We’re in a position where people are looking at what you’re doing, and listening to what you’re saying, so what are you going to talk about? You have the opportunity to make statements, whether they be philosophical or political ones. Though, as a band, you have to share a message or you’ll just splinter.

When we were invited to play in Israel in 2006, some of the band members didn’t want to go. So Attila, Oren, and I went, and performed as a sort of side project to Sunn O))) called Gravetemple, which we created just to go and have that experience. But while we were there, war broke out with Lebanon. It was crazy. There’s something about going to a country as an artist, where you’re not a political ambassador or endorsing the beliefs of the government so much as you are there for your fans. They’re so grateful for you to go past politics and just be there with your music. Maybe it’s a bit irresponsible to think about it that way, but it’s also important to remember that these things don’t always have to be tied up in the political media frenzy and fear—this paranoia and all this racist shit that gets programmed by the media. A place like Israel is just so intense on that level—but I’ve also met amazing people there, who try to avoid all that and make art.

Anderson: Even the attitude of the metal community can be polarizing, though it has significantly progressed toward openness since we first started. Back then, in the late ’90s, it was a much more rigid and narrow-minded community. If you didn’t dress a certain way, or play a certain way, or even shared the same beliefs, than you weren’t metal, and therefore not really accepted. No one understood us, or really cared to. People just said it was garbage and noise. But it never deterred us from exploring our own sound within a metal palette, and now we have a huge following and sell out shows because we didn’t conform to doing metal by the book. This has caused some people within the metal community to ask if we still respect and love it, and the answer is absolutely.

Stephen and I are extremely obsessed with, and incredibly influenced by metal. We eat, breathe, and sleep metal. Even if we don’t wear it on our sleeves, we have it in our hearts. And maybe that won’t satisfy everyone. Certainly people have tried to expose us: “They claim they’re making metal, but they’re not. They’re not metal!” Or they want to know what kind of metal that we play. That’s why we get these awkward descriptions of our sound, like “avant-garde drone doom metal.” I understand that people have these terms so that they can easily describe us, but talking about something just in terms of labels also prevents people from forming independent thoughts about our music. So if people ask, at the end of the day, I always just say that we’re experimental. It’s a broad enough term to satisfy most people and they can make what they want of it.


Kannon is out December 4th via Southern Lord Records (order it here).

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