Crunching krautrock-inspired grooves, hypnotic needling riffs and smatterings of beats and electronics. Cut-up lyrics expressing fears and visions delivered in a voice at the end of its tether. Chorus-free tracks that revealed and imposed themselves more with each listen.
It’s little wonder that near every review of Suuns’ second LP Images Du Futur came with references to turn-of-the-century-era Radiohead. This terrific record and a thrilling accompanying live show – the stiff grooves loosening up and the songs stretching out until they became throbbing, danceable monsters – marked the Montreal quartet out as one of the most exciting, forward-thinking guitar bands around. That their track 2020 was chosen to soundtrack a Nike campaign suggested they could be a surprisingly accessible one too.
It was always going to be interesting to see where Suuns would go next, then. Would they come back with some stadium-ready mechanical funk like Muse‘s Supermassive Black Hole? Or maybe something more melodic and overtly pretty like In Rainbows. Would they follow their label mates Yeasayer’s lead and follow up a fine second album with a baffling, tuneless mess like they did on Fragrant World? Perhaps Images Du Futur‘s title track – an eerie, Cluster-like instrumental – provided a vision of the future?
As it is, on Hold/Still, recorded in Dallas, Texas and Montreal with John Congleton behind the desk, they’ve produced more of the same, but even more so. The grooves are deeper, even more jarringly rigid. The hooks take even longer to burrow their way in. The lyrics are even more bleak and paranoid. “Music won’t save you” was the closing memo on Images Du Futur; this time around it’s “Nobody can save me now.”
“Fall” is dark and unsettling, a deliberately abrasive choice as album opener. The guitars are squalling and piercing, singer Ben Shemie’s vocals distorted and ugly; the drums, when they come in around the one-minute mark, are crushing, compressed to within an inch of their life. “Down… down,” Shemie repeats. We’re gonna pull you down into our world for the next 40 minutes, is the message. And where we’re going there’s gonna be very few instant, advert-ready tunes.
The superb teaser track Translate is prime Suuns: rhythmic drumming, an intricate yet catchy guitar riff that darts around before circling back on itself, Shemie becoming increasingly agitated (“don’t tell… don’t tell”). Repetition is so key to what Suuns do and time and again on Hold/Still they demonstrate their skill for layering sound and mounting tension. In lieu of choruses, Shemie uses short repeated phrases to great, dramatic effect. UH-NO builds and builds until Shemie is engulfed by an intense swarm of sound, frantically blurting the track’s title over and over: “uh-no, uh-no, uh-no, no no…no way out.” On Resistance, he repeats the word “resist” so many times that its meaning changes from a frightened warning to an oppressive order.
Both Instrument and Mortise And Tenon, with their menacing, buzzing synths and slow, strutting beats, provide a change of pace but little respite. Brainwash’s tranquil verses are suddenly disrupted by pummelling bursts of industrial noise. Careful – a dreary seven-minute endurance test – is the only moment on this captivating LP that doesn’t feel worth the effort.
After a dozen listens, Hold/Still is easily the equal of its predecessor. A dozen more and it’s sure to be its better. Resistance is futile.