Thump. Thump. Thump – goes the drum of Charon as he sails you into the gates of Hades. Or so it seems, as Suuns' new album cranks up the wailing guitars on opener 'Fall'. It certainly feels like a descent into somewhere bleak. But we go willingly because, well, Sunns carve out such a magnificent world of austere psychedelia and cut-glass emotions.
‘Hold/Still’ is a different beast to the Montreal band’s first two critically acclaimed albums ‘Zeroes QC’ (2010) and ‘Images Du Futur’ (2012). For starters, they teamed up with producer John Congleton. Next they opted to ditch the overdub. And finally they decamped to Dallas, Texas. The result is a selection of white hot, perfect takes apparently nailed in just three weeks. Always on the less side of more, the band sound even more minimal than on earlier material. And as your eyes adjust to the surrounding inky space, surprisingly beautiful spaces and textures quickly start to appear.
"We write quite minimal music," says singer Ben Shemie about the album, in the press release. "They're not traditional song forms, sometimes they don't really go anywhere – but they have their own kind of logic." The band’s guitarist/bassist, Joe Yarmush, however, puts it another way: "It's pop music, but sitting in this evil space." “Evil” is perhaps pushing it, but it’s not far off the mark (and anyway, surely it’s more fun hanging out on the dark side rather than where pink bunnies and Mary Berry roam?)
Some of the songs take on the metric of a walking pace; songs like ‘Instrument’ and the mellow ‘Mortise and Tenon’. The former occupies a similar universe to Atoms for Peace. Space has been carved around the instruments and there’s feeling of life passing you by or looking through a car window streaked with rain.
‘UN-No’ sounds like a spring being wound up and let go. “I’ve got a lot on on my mind... but most of the time I’m thinking about you,” sings Ben. An intense pulsing synth-wash pushes against the motorik drum beat. That relationship doesn’t sound healthy, you think to yourself. Every now and then sweet melodies surface, like a new flower in spring pushing through the earth. ‘Resistance’ is blessed with one such moment, as is ‘Infinity’. ‘Brainwash’ starts with some pretty guitar chords caressed by a simple tune floating over the top. Then pounding electronic drums storm the party, like a rude attack of Star Wars AT-AT walkers. "There's an element of this album that resists you as a listener, and I think that's because of these constantly opposing forces," explains drummer Liam O'Neill. Portishead are another band that handles this sense of opposition brilliantly. ‘Hold/Still’ could easily occupy the same solar system as ‘Dummy’ – although perhaps in orbit further out, where things are a bit colder and grubbier.
The last third of the album drags a little. It’s either that, or you just need a quick breather from the edgy atmosphere. In the mournful closer ‘Infinity’ Ben sings the words “infinity” and “isolation” over a chilly terrain of synth, reverb-less drums and clipped guitar. Which, in some ways, is a perfect summation of the entire album. ‘Hold/Still’ conjures up the existential mood of floating in deep space. Lonely - but also out of this world.
Words: Joe Heaney
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