SUUNS ride a very fine line between experimental weirdness and pop groove, and probably ride it harder than most. There are those who could hear their aggressive guitar parts and otherworldly sounds as grating. The first time I heard “2020” (which later made its way to the UK trailer for Only God Forgives) I was thoroughly put off by the off-kilter guitar; though I had to admit, there was something alluring about the rumbling synth bass. The song managed to go from something jarring and alien to something strangely attractive. Eventually, I would love the song. SUUNS make sounds that have an unequivocal strangeness to them, yet there’s also something almost pop-oriented going on; maybe it’s because it’s experimental electronic music made by guys who say they still like listening to Paul McCartney.
Recorded over 3 weeks in Dallas, SUUNS are calling this their most focused album to date. Writing this review had me going through a thesaurus to try and find the right mix of words to describe the songs. “Ominous” seemed like a pretty good one. “Menacing” is another. “Sinister”, “ethereal”, “alien”; all words that can define SUUNS sound, but the one that comes to mind with Hold/Still is “sexy”.
For a band made of up a bunch of tech-y music nerds (like most electronic artists, see Moby), Hold/Still is a very sexual collection of songs. Now, this isn’t Big Black’sSongs About Fucking, but vocalist Ben Shemie has called the songs thematically sexual. The actual carnal act is never depicted, but the connecting themes have strong sexual connections to them. Think Frank Underwood in the first season of House of Cards when he notes that everything is about sex except the act itself, which is really about power. The controlling forces of desire have ways of twisting us into shapes we never thought possible, and the songs on Hold/Still have ways of doing just that.
Opener “Fall”, comes in with an abrasive screech that eventually gives way to Shemie’s uncannily Thom York-ish vocals, which draw the listener in. “You make it so easy” he croons before crushing bass hits fall overtop, but what starts out heavy then becomes hypnotic. There’s a specific pattern present in almost all the songs. They start out in somewhat abstract forms, and eventually give way to fully constructed grooves. They hit their stride for about a minute before the song will end, and then cut it off almost abruptly. This is tragedy of having desire: we are always left wanting more.
Of all the instruments being played on the record, the band’s greatest strength comes in the use of the studio. Shemie and Joe Yarmuch’s signature twisted guitar tones are put together perfectly. “Mortise and Tenon” features a distorted snare sound that actually crackles in your speakers; the effect is surprising, almost 3 dimensional. SUUNS almost seem to be headed in a full on pop direction with the blues-y “Nobody Can Save Me Now” which for a second almost sounds like a cover of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”. “Careful” tells the story of a person seemingly obsessed with their partner: “for you I would cut brake lines/just watch it fall”. It goes from a person willing to give up the life of a touring musician to “join the rest of the mob”, only to destroy their new 9-5 world for the sake of their beloved. Desire only twists us into strange new forms because it has given us meaning to do so.
With their third album, SUUNS have come back with a set of songs that are equally enticing as they are ominous. Drummer Liam O’Neill, commented that “[t]here’s an element of this album that resists you as a listener…because of these constantly opposing forces”. It’s that moment in the dream where you’re not sure if you should keep going into the dark but do so anyway. The push and pull of Hold/Still is what makes it so damn interesting to listen to. It’s a hot and mysterious little record that’s playing hard-to-get, what’s sexier than that?
review by Graham Caldwell