Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1: Suicide, "Suicide (First Album)"

Artist: Suicide
Album: Suicide
Year: 1977
Label: Red Star

The term "post punk" is one of the frustratingly overused genres, and it is often strangely used to describe certain bands during the so-called height of punk, from 1976 to 1980. It is strange because, if something is referred to as "post," it implies that whatever preceded it no longer exists. Following this line of thought, it is illogical to label any albums released during this time as post-punk, and one can simply group them in as different musical variations on the punk rock ethos. Proving that true punk rock needed neither numbers nor volume, the duo known as Suicide represented the essence of the genre, as well as being one of the most avant and original bands in the history of music. With a sound that was more simple and stripped down than anything before it, and vocals deeply reminiscent of beat generation poetry, the groups' sound was much like a strange, more lo-fi combination of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground. This unique blend of sound and style was truly like nothing else the world had ever heard, and the impact that the band has had reaches across all genres over the past thirty years. Though both of the bands' first two albums are self-titled, it is their 1977 debut that stands as their highest musical achievement, as well as one of the most stunningly brilliant records ever recorded.

Even before getting to the music found within, it is clear that Suicide has all of the "street cred" that one could need to be considered true "punk," as the production team of Craig Leon and Marty Thau were also the visionaries behind the debut records for Blondie and The Ramones among many other seminal punk bands. Suicide's original debut album was seven absolutely stunning tracks, and the record has been re-issued a number of times over the years. While it does somewhat dilute the overall impact of the original release, in 2002, MUTE Records re-released the album as a two CD set, with over an hour of extra material and for one reason alone, it is well worth owning this edition. The final track on the 2002 re-issue is entitled, "23 Minutes Over Brussels," and it captures one of the most infamous moments in rock history. It is in fact, an audience recording of Suicide's opening set for Elvis Costello in Brussels, Belgium on June 16, 1978 (nearly every show on that tour was taped). The reason that the show is so notorious, and it is all found on this track, is that the Belgian audience was clearly not ready for the band, and they were booed the entire time, ending in the band cutting their set short after an audience member steals Alan Vega's microphone off of the stage mid-set. Easily one of the most brutal, yet mesmerizing moments ever caught on tape, Costello responded by playing a very short, very angry set, and after his shortened set, a riot ensured. While this fantastic musical document makes the re-issue well worth owning, the original cut of Suicide is a masterpiece in its own right, and this makes later versions truly an added bonus.

With only two members in the band, it is quickly apparent that both musicians are amazingly talented, as the sound on the album is so simply, yet sparse, that if it was anything less than stunning, it would be come immediately obvious. Handing all of the music and sound effects on Suicide is musical visionary Martin Rev. The textures and soundscapes that Rev creates throughout the bands' first album resemble nothing heard before that time, and it remains largely unparalleled to this day. Using nothing more than a synthesizer and drum machine, the sounds and moods created by Rev are simultaneously stunning as well as unsettling. The deep, imposing tone of the synthesizer gives the songs a very dark mood, and the simultaneous, more fast tempo loops make the music come off as almost menacing, if not a feeling of impending doom. Rev also creates amazing juxtapositions within the songs, as he often laces the dark, bleak sounds with starkly bright musical teases, such as are found throughout, "Rocket USA." The fact paced, repetitive music truly embodies the entire punk spirit, yet it also proves that to achieve that musical mood, one does not need to have crushing guitars, as Suicide is the ultimate proof of style over sound.

Truth be told, nearly every singer after him who delivers their vocals in any sort of spoken style, from Henry Rollins to Michael Stipe to Bruce Springsteen, owe a large debt of gratitude to the pioneering style of Alan Vega. Almost always sounding more like a poet than a singer, Vega's vocal style is absolutely captivating, and his lyrics and presentation undeniably embody the punk ethos. With lyrics that are simple, clearly delivered, yet at the same time some of the most genius and disturbing words ever recorded, there has truly never been another frontman quite like Alan Vega. The epitome of this juxtaposition between Vega's soft, almost ethereal delivery and the truly disturbing lyrical content is no more clear than on one of Suicide's most famous tracks, "Frankie Teardrop." The song is a grim and disconcerting tale of a young factory worker and his struggle to feed his family and keep his sanity. The song quickly spirals out of control lyrically, and punctuated by startling, primal, disturbing screams from Vega, the tale follows Frankie as he calmly loses his mind and kills his family before taking his own life. There are few songs in the history of music that so vividly capture the collapse of a man, and this song is truly upsetting and horrific whilst concurrently standing as one of the most amazing moments in music history. It is moments like these that reveal the true genius of Suicide, and the approach that Vega uses on every song on the groups' debut record have made him one of the most highly respected vocalists and artists the world has ever heard.

While many critics attempt to push bands like Suicide into a category separate from the "standard" seminal punk bands, the reality is, the band represents everything that it meant to be punk, and are often times a more accurate portrayal of the sound than the so-called "greats" of the genre. Stripping their music down to a stark and rudimentary sound, the group was far more concerned with the mood and emotion expressed in the music than they were about being loud or aggressive like a majority of their peers. The brooding, hostile synthesizer and organ playing of Martin Rev provide every song on Suicide with a similarly foreboding mood, and the sounds he created had massive influence on countless bands like Joy Division and Nine Inch Nails. The beat-poetry based lyrics delivered by Alan Vega took the punk approach in their simplicity, yet the themes he used were far darker than his peers, and the way in which he crafted his words were far more intellectual and artistic than a majority of other bands at the time. Once combined, the music of Suicide was truly like nothing else that had ever been recorded, and the group represented everything it meant to fully execute a sound and style, regardless of what others thought of the music. Easily one of the most startling and disconcerting albums ever recorded, Suicide's landmark 1977 self-titled debut remains one of the most influential and truly extraordinary albums ever recorded, and it is an album that must be experienced firsthand to be completely understood and appreciated.

Standout tracks: "Ghost Rider," "Rocket USA," and "Frankie Teardrop."

No comments: