57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

Electronic, Post-Punk

The One That Went AWOL

When Suicide’s long overdue third album finally appeared, one could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed since 1980. Elsewhere, time had seemed to catapult itself forward relentlessly from 1977 to the end of the 1980s, a decade which oversaw a restlessly transient musical landscape, whose fluctuating cultural shifts were not incomparable to the seismic ones experienced during the swinging 1960s and the schizophrenic 1970s. In music, it had begun with a superabundance of post-punk inventiveness, but had given way to the shallow superficial sheen of the new romantics – their vacuous synth pop all artifice, little substance. As the decade neared its close, the thriving independent music scenes in the UK and the US, had gloried in the ebullient resurrection of guitar-based music. The decade that had begun with Closer and Remain In Light had survived its asinine brush with meaninglessness, and was ending its journey on a high with a similarly inspirational torrent of creativity, bringing us the likes of Daydream Nation, Spirit Of Eden and Isn’t Anything. By the time ‘A Way Of Life’ appeared in late 1988, somehow, despite the absence of guitars (they rarely used them) and having remained virtually silent during this period, Suicide’s cachet had remained pretty high, perhaps in part because they were one of the few acts who successfully managed to transcend this shift in styles, their two chord punk primitivism and pioneering electro sound appeasing both the indie/alternative fraternity and those brought up on a diet of Depeche Mode, The Human League and Soft Cell.

‘A Way Of Life’ arrived eight years after ‘Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide’ and while it featured the original line-up – there were only ever two members – it somehow felt like a ‘reunion’ album or even a brand new incarnation. An eight year musical hiatus was comparatively rare then. However, Suicide had never really ‘split up’, despite Vega and Rev pursuing their own impressive solo ventures (check out ‘Saturn Strip’ and ‘Clouds Of Glory’) in the meantime. Alongside the new noisemeisters of guitar, a new generation of artists had built upon Suicide’s groundbreaking originality to create a sub-genre of music, sometimes called ’electronic body music’/ ‘industrial’ / ‘New Beat’, for the most part a hideous amalgam of goth fashion and automated electronic noise. For me, those bands, in addition to omitting to embellish their music with the occasional melody, also missed the point attitudinally. Suicide stood apart from them, having more in common with proto-punk icons The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (two, three chords tops), and with Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! (minimalist electronic pulse), than with those later groups such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, who utilised their machinery like a soulless bulldozer. By contrast to their pulverising racket, Suicide were impossible romantics, with a penchant for 1950s doo-wop and rockabilly. Often, the songs they wrote were love songs. Or at least, love songs buried under an aesthetic of art trash brutalism.

The band had developed a cult following from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Inspired by the street trash image of their NYC ancestors Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, the band trawled through junk stores to acquire some electronic flotsam and jetsam (including a battered old farfisa organ), donned some leather jackets and cultivated an impossibly cool NYC street image, alongside a completely uncompromising musical style. Their debut album ‘Suicide’ – the one with the blood smeared sleeve and subtle Communist iconography – seemed out of step with the ’77 zeitgeist, and yet reputedly it had been Suicide who had first coined the term ‘punk’. Certainly their concert posters from the early 1970s were often emblazoned with an invitation to a ‘Punk Mass’. Having said that, the punk masses almost to a man, abhorred them. People attacked them in the street and threw bottles at them on stage. Once, while supporting The Clash, Vega famously even had to dodge a tomahawk! I often wonder if this incident took place during a rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ a deranged ten minute purgatorial endurance test, telling the story of an impoverished factory worker who resorts to suicide, which is punctuated with Vega’s hysterical screams. Perhaps that audience was more afraid of him, than he them?

Their second album, confusingly also entitled ‘Suicide’, had a slightly more polished sound but was equally brilliant, a fluid and dazzling display of glam electro-minimalism. We know and acknowledge these albums as classics, but their third album is often ignored, and unfairly so. Musically it bears a closer resemblance to the second album, than the second does the first. But then Suicide were not a band to surprise their audience by dropping a reggae number into their set (like Patti Smith) or to indulge in a bit of genre-hopping by going acoustic or adding some orchestral accompaniment. Rather the surprises lay in their capacity to continually distil their sound to its very essence. As the ultimate purists, they bore all the hallmarks of musical sclerosis, adhering to a template from which they stubbornly refused to deviate. Indeed, Suicide songs generally follow one of four archetypes: the gorgeously ethereal atmospheric drone (eg. ‘Cheree’), the uptempo robotically pulsing drone (see ‘Ghost Rider’) the menacing hypnotic amorphous drone (try ‘Harlem’) and the jaunty electrobilly beat (eg. ‘Johnny’). In other words, a lot of drone. Vega’s nervy croon, deliriously erotic at times, sounds like Elvis had he been abandoned, petrified, in a haunted house. Rev’s drum machine punches out patterns which perform a function similar to Tommy Hall’s jug in the Elevators, while as one man band he creates a range of extraordinarily dissonant keyboard sounds.

‘A Way Of Life’ was recorded in one session on one day in December 1987. Apparently, billed producer Ric Ocasek arrived immediately after the recording session finished, stunned to find the album had already been completed. Nevertheless, he retains production credits on an album which features some of Sucide’s most memorable songs, not least the opener ‘Wild In Blue’ where Vega’s echo-laden gnarling vocals over an eerily locked robotic funk groove, inculcate an air of menace. On ‘Rain Of Ruin’ one of their most danceable rhythms is buried underneath a buzz of mechanistic beats, which sounds like a relentlessly rushing great electronic river – like Metal Machine Music played by Ralf and Florian. The Lou Reed fixation is taken to the outer limits on ‘Love So Lovely’, the last half of which has a rhythmic intensity of phrasing that recalls the maniacal finale to The Velvets’ ‘Murder Mystery’. Then there is the gorgeous ballad ‘Surrender’, where Elvis meets Angelo Badalamenti at the High School Prom, 1958. ‘Jukebox Baby 96’ is archetype #4 (see above), the obligatory flirtation with rockabilly, while ‘Dominic Christ’ funky and frightening at the same time, presents the band at their despairing best, bristling with dark energy.

These songs – the ones that went AWOL – are worthy successors to those on Suicide’s first two universally hailed masterpieces and deserve greater recognition. There is a temptation to write the band off as a creative force after 1980, but they have continued to make new music since ‘A Way Of Life’, and even if subsequently they have not recaptured that original vitality, their legacy is secure with an impressive list of disciples including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream, not to mention many notable creators of electronic music from 1978 onwards. While our sense of time and place can indeed conspire to deceive us, listening to the music of Suicide means we can stand outside of that; it is original, unique, groundbreaking, and ultimately, ageless. (JJ)

27. GRIZZLY BEAR – YELLOW HOUSE (2006) / (A) VECKATIMEST (2009)

Baroque Pop, Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

To propose that there might be a genius or two creating popular music in the 21st century may be anathema to those of a certain vintage. After all, Lennon, (Tim) Buckley, Van Vliet, and co. are no longer with us. Indeed one is liable to invite ridicule at the mere suggestion, but I would venture that if people are prepared to look hard enough there are at least a few, one of whom is Daniel Rossen, co-contributor to the wonderful NY foursome, Grizzly Bear.

Grizzly Bear began as a moniker for Ed Droste who, to little fanfare, released a low-fi debut entitled Horn of Plenty in 2004. For the second full-length feature, the ranks had swelled to include three other members, most significantly 23-year old Department of Eagles multi-instrumentalist, Rossen. Droste’s recruitment policy demonstrated shrewd judgement – in fact it was a masterstroke, Rossen’s widescreen West Coast sensibilities were less a musical appendage than the catalyst for a revolution in the band’s modus operandi.

The first fruits of this remoulding, Yellow House (recorded in Droste’s mother’s house), might sound at first like a bunch of (flamboyantly) half-baked ideas toiling in vain to find conventional form, and could be easily dismissed as such by the more casual, less discerning listener. But as the saying goes: ‘a new home slowly reveals it’s secrets’, so too with Yellow House.

Take the album’s opener for instance. ‘Easier’ patiently emerges from atmospheric woodwind and upright piano before being transfigured by Disneyesque harmonising and then an amalgam of sounds which I can only describe as a fantasia of bluegrass-flavoured Impressionism. Like much of the album, it features banjo, autoharp and glockenspiel, and if someone said to you that it was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, you could not feign surprise.

If Marla’s stalking waltzlike piano conveys a sense of foreboding, it is soon transfigured by a string arrangement which sounds like ghosts escaping from one of Debussy’s tone poems, weaving into the solemnity their alluring supernatural tapestries.

But it is not all rhapsody and capriccio. After a breezily acoustic beginning, the guitars on ‘On A Neck And A Spit’ hurtle, crash and collapse together causing an unnerving pile up, before Rossen raises the tempo with a buzzing (Roy) Harper-esque bastard-folk foot stomp. ‘Lullaby’ does what it says on the tin, until half way in it is violently ambushed by a gaggle of Grizzly guitars. While ‘Knife’ is at least more musically orthodox, and easily the closest to a ‘hit’ here, it’s lyrics  ( I want you to know / When I look in your eyes / With every blow / Comes another lie / You think it’s alright / Can’t you feel the knife?) mean it is unlikely it will find its way into your repertoire of songs to sing in the shower.

There is such a range of genre-hopping versatility on show here, that the result is the creation of something almost uncategorisable, and there is some evidence to suggest the band seek further afield than most for their musical inspiration, in particular to film soundtracks. Consider for example the unearthly harmonising on the incredibly complex ‘Central and Remote’, eerily redolent (3:24-4:03) of Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’. And is it just me, or does the achingly beautiful ‘interlude’ on the incomparable ‘Little Brother’ parallel Вячеслав Овчинников’s exquisite music for the ‘apples and horses’ dream sequence in Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’? In each case the meticulous craftsmanship, borrowed reference points or not, is to be admired and cherished.

The closer ‘Colorado’ with its densely layered vocal overdubs has to be heard to be believed. Imagine the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ version of ‘Cool Cool Water’ being recorded by Big Star during sessions for their ill-fated third album and you may get close. It’s a bewildering end to a bewitching album, one that ranks alongside ‘Forever Changes’ and ‘Spirit of Eden’ as one of music’s great documents of reinvention.

The last time of any note a group of precocious and wide-eyed musicians in their mid-20s retired to an old house to express with such versatility and virtuosity a new musical language, the result was Music From Big Pink’, an album that changed the course of popular music. No far-reaching influence was to follow from Yellow House but it is an historical document that will surely be blessed with similar longevity. It leaves you wondering: why isn’t all music this imaginative? The answer to that question is no secret. Put a sign up outside that Yellow House: ‘Daniel Rossen: Genius At Work’.

VECKATIMEST

What is implicit on Yellow House is made explicit on Veckatimest; what was alluded to is now clearly defined; what was hidden is now revealed; where there was a sophomoric air, there is now professorial authority; what sounded exploratory has now reached perfect distillation.
I can barely bring myself to talk about Veckatimest for fear of allowing some of it’s magic to somehow escape in a cloud of loquaciousness. It will suffice to mention that ‘Southern Point’ is the best one stop introduction to the band’s music, and that ‘I Live With You’ is one of the most impossibly beautiful things I have ever heard. So let me keep it simple: Veckatimest is very probably the greatest album of the 21st Century so far. (JJ)