Hold/Still, the third studio album from Suuns, is an enigmatic thing: an eerily beautiful, meticulously played suite of music that embraces opposites and makes a virtue of cognitive dissonance. It is a record that does not give up its secrets easily. The 11 songs within are simultaneously psychedelic, but austere; sensual, but cold; organic, but electronic; tense sometimes to the brink of mania, but always retaining perfect poise and control. “There’s an element of this album that resists you as a listener, and I think that’s because of these constantly opposing forces,” says drummer Liam O’Neill. “Listen to the song ‘Brainwash’, for instance, “It’s a very soft, lyrical guitar song, existing alongside extremely aggressive and sparse drum textures. It inhabits these two worlds at the same time.”
From the beginning, Suuns (you pronounce it “soons”, and it translates as “zeroes” in Thai) have sought to do things differently. They formed in Montreal 2007, when singer/guitarist Ben Shemie and guitarist Joe Yarmush got together to work on some demos, soon to be joined by Liam, Ben’s old schoolfriend, on drums and Max Henry on synth. Their group’s first two records, 2010’s Zeroes QC and 2012’s Polaris Prize-nominated Images Du Futur – both released on Secretly Canadian – were immediate critical hits, and Suuns soon found themselves part of a late ‘00s musical renaissance in the city, alongside fellow groups like The Besnard Lakes, Islands and Land Of Talk. Still, at the same time, Suuns feel remote from the big, baroque ensembles and apocalyptic orchestras that typify the Montreal scene. “We write quite minimal music,” thinks Ben. “They’re not traditional song forms, sometimes they don’t really go anywhere – but they have their own kind of logic.” Or as Joe puts it: “It’s pop music, but sitting in this evil space.”
After two records produced by their friend Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes at his Montreal studio Breakglass, Suuns decided Hold/Still demanded a different approach. In May 2015, they decamped to Dallas, Texas to work with Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (St Vincent, The War On Drugs, Sleater-Kinney). For three intense weeks, the four recorded in Congleton’s studio by day, the producer driving them to capture perfect live takes with virtually no overdubbing. At night, they returned to their cramped apartment and stewed. “Recording in Montreal, it’s more of a party atmosphere,” says Joe. “Here it felt like we were on a mission. We were looking for something to take us out of our element, or that might seep into our music.” Luckily, the effect was galvanizing. Under Congleton’s instruction, ‘Translate’ and ‘Infinity’, songs the group had been reworking for years, suddenly found their form.
The result is undoubtedly Suuns’ most focused album to date, the sound of a band working in mental lockstep, crafting a guitar music that feels unbeholden to clear traditions or genre brackets. From the haunted electronic blues of ‘Nobody Can Save Me Now’ to throbbing seven-minute centrepiece ‘Careful’, Hold/Still foregrounds the work of Max, a synthesizer obsessive who builds his own patches and confesses to using cranky or budget equipment as well as top-of-the-range kit because “[good gear] does all the work for you, and that’s not always fun”. Certainly, this is a band as inspired by the dark groove textures of Andy Stott, the flourishing arpeggios of James Holden or the serrated productions of Death Grips as anything familiarly rock. “Things don’t feel right until they’ve been touched or cast over in an electronic light,” elaborates Liam. “It’s rare that acoustic drum kit, guitar, and bass comprise a finished product for us. For a song to be Suuns, it has to be coloured by electronics”.
Certainly this remains a band in love with the aesthetic of obscurity. The album cover is an image of Ben’s former workmate Nahka, who was captured by photographer Caroline Desilets using a pinhole camera with a four-minute exposure time – Hold/Still, indeed.
In another contradiction, this record finds Ben’s vocals far more enunciated and upfront than before. If there are themes that tie Hold/Still together, says Ben, they might be investigations “about sex… perhaps not the act specifically, just [themes] of a sexual nature. But there’s also a spiritual undertone that points to another kind of searching.” The sexual is illustrated in the dark romance of ‘Careful’, while longing becomes both sexual and spiritual in the thirsty pleas of ‘Instrument’: “I wanna believe/I wanna receive…” The spiritual takes over on the back half of the record. ‘Nobody Can Save Me Now’ evokes artist Tracey Emin’s ghostly invocation For You at the Liverpool Cathedral: “I felt you / and I knew that you loved me”, while side B opener ‘Brainwash’ wonders: “Do you see, all seeing? / Do you know, all knowing?”
In a cultural centre like Montreal, bands can get too comfortable playing to their peers. Suuns, though, feel like a band always looking to the nearest border. They found early audiences in France and in Belgium, where they curated the Sonic City Festival in 2012, booking acts as diverse as Swans, Tim Hecker and Demdike Stare. Meanwhile, the last couple of years have seen them tour as far afield as Mexico, Morocco, Beirut, Taiwan and Istanbul – sometimes with friend Radwan Moumneh of the multimedia project Jerusalem In My Heart, with whom they released a brilliant collaborative record, Suuns And Jerusalem In My Heart last year.
“We tour a lot as a band and we’ve been all over the map at this point,” says Ben. “There is a concerted effort on our part, when the opportunity arises, to do that. It’s like, this time, let’s try to go further east, let’s try to go further south. You find yourself playing in front of people who don’t get bands playing in front of them often, and that can be really fun.” In short, good things happen when you venture outside of your comfort zone – a truth that you could equally apply to Hold/Still itself: an album which derives its eerie power from simmering tensions and strange, stark juxtapositions, and in doing so, directs rock music down a new, unventured path.
Hold/Still, the third studio album from Suuns, is an enigmatic thing: an eerily beautiful, meticulously played suite of music that embraces opposites and makes a virtue of cognitive dissonance. It is...
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