Sunn O))), the Mark Rothkos of void-painting expressionist metal, are returning next month with their first studio album in six years — ending the longest wait between blasts in the band’s 15 year history. Kannon, released on co-leader Greg Anderson’s Southern Lord Records, strips the band down from the baroque orchestral arrangements of 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions, instead opting for a three-song cycle that Anderson calls “a fairly accurate reflection of … the power of the group live.”
That means molasses-slow riffs from Anderson and Stephen O’Malley and, for the first time, vocals on every song, a Tibetan throat-singing-style growl courtesy of Mayhem’s Atilla Csihar. The record also features performances from longtime collaborators Oren Ambarchi, Rex Ritter and Steve Moore.
“Everyone in the band has done a lot of music outside of this band and just being in the studio with all these people it’s pretty amazing,” says O’Malley. “Like everyone is real experienced. It’s not like in the old days [where] Greg and I have taken a bunch of pills and are just getting crazy in the studio for two nights.
Rolling Stone caught up with O’Malley and Anderson to talk about the album, which you can hear in its entirety below.
Would you call Kannon a happy album?
Stephen O’Malley: Happy? I’m happy it’s finished. [Laughs.] This kind of emotion doesn’t really matter to me. What I think is, the color of the record is bright. The music is bright. I don’t just mean the high frequencies, I mean the feeling — the emotional undercurrent. There’s a brighter brightness to it.
Greg Anderson: I think if anything actually, in relation to Monoliths, I think it’s a slightly darker mood. I think that Monoliths & Dimensions was us embracing the light, and I think that continues on to the songwriting on Kannon, too. You know, realizing that there’s more to “heavy” than just bludgeon and black. Heavy can be even heavier if it has a fuller spectrum involved with it, you know, if it has other colors. … I like to use the word “light” because it just reminds me of some of that stuff of coming out of darkness and there’s this blinding light, which in itself, to me, for the first time in my life I sort of realized that’s heavy, too. I’ve realized that there are different ways to be heavy rather than just pummeling a riff into the ground and it having to be, like, all minor and all completely dark.
The riffs seem a little faster than usual on this
O’Malley: I don’t know if the tempo is faster. I think with Kannon, the way it’s set up, there’s a mantra that emerges. Because of Atilla’s style, because of the melodic aspect of the guitars, I think that mantra, you identify it sooner. It would appear to you that things are being played faster because something sticks more. We played the final mixes to Oren Ambarchi and he’s like, “Yeah, it’s kind of like … Sunn O)))’s pop record.” I’m laughing, but I know what he means.
Have you seen the Black Yo)))ga collective, the group that does yoga to your music in Pittsburgh?
Anderson: Yeah, I’m familiar with that. It’s somewhat flattering, but I also feel like it’s somewhat silly. [Laughs.] I’ve never been a yoga person — it’s not something that really speaks to me or is interesting. But, for me it’s like whatever gets you through the night. It’s an honor for someone to use your music in a way that’s helping them meditate or feel better.
The new record has an eastern religion vibe to it and is named after the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It’s interesting that you’re into the iconography but not, say, actively practicing meditation.
Anderson: That’s an important thing to mention. It is sort of the imagery around that, really around religion, that I think is really powerful. I’ve always thought that. But, ironically, I guess, none of us really subscribe to any specific religion. I wouldn’t consider us to be spiritual people.
O’Malley: I thought it was interesting to have this concept there, one that has somewhat of a relationship to meditation. … I guess this is a cliché to say that musicians are meditating when they’re playing their instruments, but it’s actually what happens, I think. … Musically too, I think it’s pretty strong to suggest, “OK this overall theme involves merciful behavior.” While, at the same time it’s this real intense massive amount of energy and sound. Instead of it being aggressive and brutal music, it actually is presented as this merciful, bright music. … When we’re on tour, it’s not like [a] miserable depressing experience at all. It’s ecstatic.