by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
The four dudes in Montreal’s Suuns may be reticent to admit it, but they probably love to dance. This experimental art-rock crew has built a solid following over the last six years with incredibly haunting tunes that range in style from the brooding, mobile squall of 2010’s debut Zeroes QC to the cold, bodily grooves of 2013’s Images du Futur, all the while incorporating the breathy, alarming moments of early 2000s Radiohead into an eerie palette of psychedelia, krautrock, and oddly driving rhythms. But only “Leyla,” from last year’s collaborative album with Jerusalem in My Heart, points towards the sparseness of Suuns’ newest LP, Hold/Still. Scaling back on excess instruments wherever possible, Suuns’ third album is better suited to soundtrack a zombie apocalypse than a dimly lit Brooklyn dance-floor. But despite their newly minimal approach, underneath the band’s terrifying noise pulses remain serious grooves.
Sure, even on Imgaes du Futur, Suuns’ songs never quite approached outright dance music, but on that album, the most frolicking moments could fairly get someone moving. On Hold/Still, the songs are more likely to result in spastic body movements with no real pattern. Such innate reactions are likely thanks in no small part to the album’s thumping bass synths and chant-like vocals that resemble a cult leader commanding his followers. It’s easy to involuntarily bob along to the crashing kick drum, searing bass synths, and incisive grunts of “Resistance”; good luck not doing a weird 2010s reimagining of The Robot to the wordless chorus of “Paralyzer.” Likewise, “Translate” lends itself to an odd acid trip of a one-person dance routine, its double-time guitar line and walloping synth underbelly outlining motion as much as they spell fear.
Yes, this is still Suuns we’re talking about here, so Hold/Still is far from lacking in intensely scary moments. As though the restrained, guitar-and-vocals-only crawl of the verses of “Brainwash” aren’t ominous enough, Suuns throw in smashes of raucous, ear-splitting industrial bass synth (ostensibly the band’s favorite instrument during the LP’s recording sessions) to form the closest this song comes to a genuine chorus. “Mortise and Tenon” similarly intimidates with a foreboding percussive clap and a steady build towards an eerily fading end. Somewhere in the middle of the many extremes touched upon here lies “Instrument,” which rides billowing waves of synth and percussion into a devilish soundscape of murky coos and brief guitar gasps that, outside the song’s last minute or so, pull themselves back quickly enough to induce paranoia and general disorientation, as Suuns have done so well throughout their catalog.
This last concept is key to understanding Hold/Still: although Suuns are achieving this with fewer elements and less outright sound than previously, they still manage to disorient specifically by disorienting musical norms. Grooves this thick in brooding, slow-building art rock songs? Rare outside, of course, Radiohead and maybe TV on the Radio. Just as strangely, for perhaps the first time in their career, Suuns’ have repurposed guitars to function the way most bands (and Suuns’ own past songs) employ vocals. Rather than building sonic backbones here, guitars outline meager melodies that intertwine with these songs’ flimsy yet spooky vocals; drums and bass synth instead outline these songs’ trajectories.
This guitar trickery is especially effective since vocalist Ben Shermie’s words are often wrapped in the other instruments rather than standing above them as in previous Suuns tunes. Here, Shermie often murmurs his vague lyrics in a soft tone that opposes the cruel soundscapes he sings over. Outside “UN-NO,” Suuns’ words tend to come off more as sounds to add melody rather than phrases to add meaning. When combined with the blips of guitar around them, these vocals manage to impart much of the fear ricocheting throughout the album, an impressive achievement given how low-key Shermie’s voice remains across these eleven tracks.
It doesn’t particularly matter what words Suuns are saying on Hold/Still; what’s important is how the dissonant and harrowing soundscapes Suuns provide affect the listener. Words shift to the periphery as terror gives way, or, for the more physically inclined, that overwhelming urge to groove out takes a hold, just as Suuns aim for.