Release Date: Apr 15, 2016
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, New Wave/Post-Punk Revival
Hold/Still is a direction, a command and, without a doubt, a fitting title for Suuns' third record. The album art photograph of a woman was captured by a pinhole camera, a device whose method demands the subject remain motionless. The album itself is engaging and captivating, commanding the listener's attention: Ben Shemie's vocals are almost wordlessly whispered (like the spicy "Pie IX" from debut Zeroes QC) and a little more direct, while the instrumentation is more focused, serpentine where it might have been meandering thanks in large part to John Congleton (St.
Suuns bring together the polarities of maximalism and minimalism. On the one hand, they’re curators of bludgeoning noise. Hear the opening track ‘Fall’ – searing guitars, scorched by feedback; a rhythm section blasted through blown speakers. On the other hand, they’re curators of subtraction and ambience.
Psychedelia has become pop. It’s a genre where sunglasses emojis and peace signs go hand in hand, where your friends laugh from a high they pretend has peaked, where summer vibes never stop if you let glossy pop overtake the chorus. But what about the other end of the drug spectrum? What about the awful trips, the shadows that morph into monsters, the anxiety that chomps at your heartbeat, and the insanity that champions thrill in the weirdest ways? There’s something to be said for when things turn sour, and on Hold/Still, Montreal-based quartet Suuns embrace that openly.
Suuns have always had an original take on rock music, their records marked by electronic-leaning applications of guitar, synth and drum sounds that placed their music just off the rails of any rock sub-genre. But if those great albums—Images du Futur, Zeroes QC—ultimately sounded at home in your living room next to other rock songs, Hold/Still is more of a conversation piece. Across the 13 tracks, they’ve removed many of the sticky sinews from their music (vocal harmonies threaded through the tracks, consistent rock drumming), but left the robust skeleton of their core ideas standing.
Hold/Still is an unsteady album. It’s a consistent, methodical unsteadiness that hangs a song on a single blurred synth tone, a suspension bridge between two guitars acres apart in the mix, and then shoots it with bolts of electricity (“UN-NO”). It’s guitar music backed with a steady throb of dystopian dance and spiked with sudden, unexpected sounds that can be hard to place at first hearing.
Following an intriguing collaboration with Lebanese-Canadian experimental project Jerusalem in My Heart, Montreal art rock quartet Suuns ventured to Dallas to record their third proper full-length with producer John Congleton, who is known for his work with artists such as St. Vincent and Swans. As with previous Suuns recordings, Hold/Still features minimal, hypnotic arrangements that are frequently blown out with distortion, but just as often feel spare and spacious.
As Hold/Still's penultimate track shakes off its bewildering, oddball electronics and settles into a sinister rhythmic strut, all vocalist Ben Shemie can do is croon the track's title: "Nobody can save me now." He doesn't seem to mind. It could all fall apart so easily, but this is a record that feels most at home when nothing is certain. Shemie sounds content.
Three albums in for Montreal’s Suuns and they’re still not making it any easier. Once again, on ‘Hold/Still’ they slink through their characteristic mix of bubbling synths and hypnotic guitars - that’s their trademark. It’s an album that boasts all the tools, from impenetrable denseness to intimidating stillness, but tends to shapeshift as ideas and intents dictate.
The Upshot: A full-on drone assault via chanted/heavily treated vocals, motoric rhythms and an oftentimes brutally monolithic sound spectrum—think Spacemen 3 and Sonic Youth meet Suicide and Neu! Around the time of their second album, 2013’s Jace Lasek-produced/Polaris Prize-nominated Images Du Futur, I got to see Montreal’s Suuns, first at an in-store performance and then in Austin during SXSW. The experience was, each time around, simultaneously flattening and thrilling, like being pinned against a concrete wall by a 300-pound bouncer then getting French-kissed by a gorgeous stripper. It was all the more exciting because early on the book on Suuns (such as in this 2010 review of debut Zeroes QC) was that the Montreal band shone somewhat dimly— “never really establishes its own consistent sound” was the consensus.
Suuns. Stare at the word long enough and it starts to look correct, as if that’s how it’s always been formed and anything that says otherwise is wrong. Sure, there’s a slight headache as the cognitive dissonance sets in, flashbacks to early schooldays and large print books, but it’s nothing some more staring can’t fix. Suuns.
Our latest installment of Quick Takes may be up a little bit later than usual, but bear with us - with so many surprise releases, from Radiohead to James Blake to Drake, we've been just as overwhelmed as all of you trying to keep up. But that doesn't stop us from acknowledging some records that we ….