Metal as a Mote of Dust: Bayard Godsave and George McCormick on Experimental Music, Drones, French Horns and Sunn O)))’s Kannon
Godsave: We can start by getting the typical review stuff out of the way. Sunn O)))’s newest album, Kannon seems to offer few surprises. Comprised of three long songs, “Kannon 1,” “Kannon 2” and “Kannon 3,” the album in a lot of ways feels like a single composition, a suite maybe, three movements rather than three individual pieces. Sunn O))) plays metal, but a slowed down droning metal, a metal (largely) without drums. I’ve heard that the term “heavy metal” was coined by a critics who were describing the sound of early rock groups like Led Zeppelin. The original usage had nothing to do with many of the things we sometimes think of when we think of metal: thrash, speed, aggression—though Zeppelin could certainly play fast, could certainly play aggressively—but was instead an attempt to put into words a certain texture, a certain feeling that the writer was associating with the sound. This I think has always been Sunn O)))’s preoccupation: the texture of sound. But, more specifically, it is with the texture of the sound of metal, with the roll and fuzz of distortion. Sunn O))) slows metal down, packing as many minutes as possible into a single note—the exact opposite of a virtuosic approach to metal, like Steve Vai’s, if you will excuse my old school reference, which seeks to put as many notes as possible into a single minute—and that slowing down is a kind of magnification. Sunn O))) shows you the metal sound the way that a really powerful microscope shows you a mote of dust, or the exoskeleton of a flea: pitted and craggy, manifold and strange, alien, exposed—you wonder how it doesn’t just fall apart. I want to say I’ve heard someone describe Sunn O))) as minimalist, which is an apt description from a certain perspective. As a metal band they are minimalist, in that they strip away everything until they are left with only that sound—well, and also the robes—metal not as category, but as something else, it’s no longer even a noun, or it is a noun that lacks specificity, a kind of essence, a triggering force of communion between music and listener that that original adjectival usage was trying to capture. And yet at the same time they are maximalist. They amplify that sound—amplification is everything: they take their name from a kind of amplifier, they thank their “valve guru” Tos Nieuwenhizen in the liner notes. That one thing becomes as big as everything. Maximum sound for maximum results. Anyway, that’s what I have always seen Sunn O))) doing, and that’s what they are doing on this album as well.
McCormick: I think I agree with the perspective that describes them as minimalist in so far as it it’s a perspective that understands that minimal doesn’t mean small. Minimalism is an enlarging of essential elements. Think of minimalists like the sculptor Donald Judd or the painter Richard Serra (whose painting Out of Round-X serves as the cover for Monoliths and Dimensions) and that’s the kind of minimalism we have with Sunn O))) and the kind of minimalism we have on the new album. I like the new album—its sounds good really loud, which I think is a good test for all of their music—but I don’t feel like it is a major work, or a groundbreaking work. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the kind of range that albums like Monoliths and Dimensions and say, Black One, have. From those records I think about songs like “Báthory Erzsébet” and “Alice,” songs that are each sixteen minutes long and contain not only Sunn O)))’s signature droning, sub-bass guitar, but also human voice, horns, cellos, digital sound effects, etc. There seems to be more texture on those songs.
Godsave: There is something, though, to the smaller approach to Kannon. I like Monoliths and Dimensions and it is considered by many to be a major work, perhaps even the major work by Sunn O))), but all of that texture, the French horn and so on, always felt a little studio-y to me. And I don’t know why that matters, I love really produced work generally, but it does. I have never seen Sunn O))) live, I’ve only heard live recordings, but this album feels closer to what those sound like. Three guys and some really big amplifiers. I’m thinking in particular of Dømkirke, a composition that was commissioned to be played in an old cathedral. The instrumentation there is a lot like it is on Kannon. As an extension of that physical space the drone, which on that record is supplemented by an organ, feels ancient, the monkish vocals seem sort of necessary. Originally, I was thinking that it must be an accident of timing, that you’d loaned me that live album at the time I was first listening to this one, that caused me to hear such a strong connection between the two albums, but reading Aliza Shvarts’s liner notes, about Kannon as invocation of the goddess, I’m starting to think there may be something there. Of course, our description of the sound on Kannon as more stripped down, smaller, etc, my assertion that it is somehow less produced than Monoliths and Dimensions only means that I have bought into the illusion they are creating. If you look at the personnel on the album, there are all sorts of other instruments, Moogs and other guitars and so on, it isn’t just three guys and some amps. But it is a more subtle texture. At the end of “Kannon 2” for example comes what sounds like faraway bells, signaling the shift from “Kannon 2” to “Kannon 3”, from one kind of darkness to a slightly lighter kind of darkness. Again, it feels churchy—only here it feels like we are outside the church, moving towards it, perhaps—it feels old, like the music is invoking something. It feels like a music of an earthy sort of faith, but not like a kind of put-on metal faith, like we’re-going-to-be-into-druids-and-the-devil-cause-that-shit-looks-cool kind of thing, but it feels like it’s done in earnest. I don’t know why I feel as though that earnestness can’t come across with a French horn present, except that maybe that instrument is the ultimate session player instrument. There are like eight French horn players on the planet, so they have to be everywhere, playing on a Liszt recording one day, on Pet Sounds the next. They can’t possibly buy into everything they’re doing. A French horn player is always a mercenary.
McCormick: French horn players are the Hessians of our time. You’re right though. Going back and looking at the liner notes I was blown away to see all the different musicians listed. And you’re right that the simplicity of the sound is an illusion. I remember when you first listened to the album you said that it had a punk feel in that it seemed like a music whose means were accessible. Three guys and some amps. However, what doesn’t feel like just three guys and some amps is the music’s ambition. And that is something that is consistent on all of their albums. I couldn’t agree with you more that their music contains some old world notion of faith and spirituality. The bells, the chanting, the musical meditation. It’s serious.
Their live album, Dømkirke, was a recorded at Bergen Cathedral in Bergen, Norway. They were commissioned to write a piece (from the gatefold) “referring to the gothic Gregorian hymns of the Late Middle Ages. Hymns that flourished…in its earliest years: The age of the Great Famine and The Black Plague. The Gregorian hymns of this time reflected the despair, the terrors and darkness of the world. Musically the hymns consisted of long slow lines of unison melodies.” So yeah, they wear black robes and play in an ancient cathedral and think about the Plague—the stagecraft, the themes, all of this fits squarely into the world of metal. Yet one of the things that impresses me most about Sunn O))) is how much their music, especially Kannon, sounds like non-metal music. When I listen to this album I hear just as much Tony Conrad’s “Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain” or La Monte Young’s “Pre-Tortoise Dream Music, Part Two” as I do Sabbath.
Godsave: I would not be the least bit surprised to discover that in Steven O’Malley’s record collection Conrad or Young records, or Stockhausen and Cage records, outnumbered Metallica and Maiden. The music certainly comes from a tradition of formal composition—but that alternative tradition running through the second half of the 20th century. I would even compare what they do to what Anthony Braxton does, in the sense that they are working clearly in a musical tradition that is seen as anti-classical, anti-institutional by some, trashy by others (metal in their case, jazz in the case of Braxton), and yet unashamed to declare, or flaunt these other influences. One difference is that Sunn O))) seems to have been embraced from the start, while Braxton spent a long time in the wilderness, going on and doing what he was doing despite critics who were saying it wasn’t jazz, it didn’t “swing.” And, yes, it feels punk, or I have a similar reaction to it that I do to certain punk bands. I feel like I could do it too, it’s just a few notes after all, played with the gain turned all the way to 10. There’s something democratic about that. Shvarts talks in her liner notes—and it’s really been a struggle not to just paraphrase what she has said this whole time, her writing on this band is fantastic—that a metal without drums is a feminist metal. As she says, “Some metal is all thrust.” Sunn O)))’s metal feels boundaryless, inverted, to use the language of critical discourse as Shvarts does: it dissolves binaries. Weirdly, this made me think of Braxton too, how he talks about being in search of the feminine in jazz. But even the way those liner notes are written, with Shvartz riffing and punning, gaming the etymology of Kannon, it reminds me of how people write about Braxton, Ayler and musicians like that, how Nathaniel Mackey writes about jazz, but specifically free jazz, avant-garde jazz. I think there must be some affinity between Sunn O))) and that strain of jazz that prompts a similar kind of response. You know, this is a kind of a sideways move, but John Coltrane has a few songs where he incorporates a second bass—I’m thinking specifically of “Olé”, “India”, and “Africa”—and it gives all of those compositions what I call a “scary sound.” I found out what the second bass was doing on those songs was imitating the drone strings on a sitar, often with the second bass player using the bow to do it. On a sitar that drone isn’t necessarily scary. On a bass, which is many octaves lower, it can transform into something dark and disturbing. Compositionally I don’t see Coltrane and Sunn O))) as analogous necessarily, but understanding what is happening on those compositions helps explain I guess what is happening to me, physically, bodily, when a Sunn O))) record is playing.
McCormick: There is drone in Coltrane’s music, and like in Sunn O)))’s music, it is menacing. All of your examples above are spot-on, but also think of the drone sounds he engineered with the bass clarinet. Here I’m thinking of Eric Dolphy’s use of it on “Spiritual” on the Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. It is a blues, yes, but it is also a slow, sludgy blues. The underground railroad’s dangerous route through a swamp. On those four nights at the Vanguard, Coltrane worked hard to employ a textured, heavy, droning sound to counter his soprano. Think of the other instruments and other musicians who contributed to the drone on those four nights: Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison on bass (at times simultaneously); Garvin Bushell on oboe and contrabassoon, Dolphy on bass clarinet, Abdul-Malik on oud. Like Sunn O))), Coltrane’s long-form songs are atmospheric and explorative. And I like what you say here about how the songs on Kannon feel punk in their simplicity. Music made out of just a few notes. As intricate and expansive as Coltrane’s music is, his “sheets of sound” and use of dissonance, etc., remember that Coltrane was a minimalist in the same style as Sunn O))) is now. On A Love Supreme Coltrane talks about using “cells” of notes, that is, taking three notes and then exploring all the possibilities in tone and sequencing within those notes. I mean the refrain in A Love Supreme is quite simple: da-duh da-deh, da-duh da-deh. It’s how he complicates that essential cell that is interesting. And I want to say, before I sign off here, that I am in total agreement about the liner notes on Kannon. A metal without drums is a feminist metal. How had I not ever thought of that before? Shvarts’ essay is worth the price of admission alone. But this shouldn’t be surprising considering that the packaging of all of Sunn O)))’s records and CDs is always first rank. There’s always something to look at, to read, that isn’t mind blowing in some way.
Bayard Godsave is the author of two collections of short fiction, Lesser Apocalypses and Torture Tree. He lives in southwest Oklahoma and teaches writing at Cameron University.
George McCormick is the author of the story collection Salton Sea and the novel Inland Empire.