splendid > reviews > 11/20/2002
American Supreme
Mute/Blast First

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Misery Train"

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Suicide are as difficult to like in 2002 as they were in 1977. I think they take a perverse pride in that fact. The passage of time and the gradual evolution of taste has dragged the seventies' and eighties' most "extreme" acts into the spotlight -- even Throbbing Gristle seems cuddlier these days -- but Suicide linger obstinately on the border of listenability, due in no small part to the sheer linearity of their sound. Most people, if they're inclined to tackle Suicide in the first place, can handle noise; it's the duo's endless, repetitive drone that gets them. Put it this way: Space Invaders was tremendously influential, but would you really spend six hours mowing down row after row of identical aliens when you could be playing Vice City instead?

American Supreme, Suicide's first new material in ten years, is a curious beast -- dark, confused, displaced and often hopeless. Suicide isn't the sort of band you'd expect to be inspired, even loosely, by September 11th, but that's the case; vocalist/lyricist Alan Vega lives a few blocks from Ground Zero, and was deeply influenced by the tragedy, though he makes no explicit reference to the experience. The album is filled with amplified images drawn from that dark day and the new world it created, but you'll find no treacly anthems to fallen firemen here; rather, Vega's rants are his attempt to come to grips with emptiness, disorientation and an existence forever altered by inconceivably grand-scale tragedy. It's odd, and a little uncomfortable, to hear a band like Suicide caught off guard by precisely the sort of dystopian smackdown their early music predicted/endorsed, but that's all part of the presentation. It's not easy going; Vega has mellowed with age, but he growls and croons like an addled, drugged-up Roy Orbison, prone to abrupt and vicious mood swings. He can't quite deliver the inhuman screams he did in the seventies, but as "Swearin' to the Flag", "Death Machine" and "Child, It's A New World" prove, he's still a scary vocalist.

As long as we're talking about scary stuff, let's address the music. "Televised Executions" opens the disc with beats, a funky R&B bass lick and turntable scratching. On a Suicide record, this is a What The Fuck moment par excellence -- you will open the CD player, take the disc out and stare at it as if willing it to admit that it's actually someone else's work. But it's Suicide, alright. Vega's geriatric Wolfman Jack vocals, swaddled in reverb, mesh uneasily with Martin Rev's bubbling rhythm and twiddly electro trimmings. It's far from the hash-job it might have been -- in fact, it's perversely enjoyable -- but there are no surprises after the initial shock. The gentle, pretty burble of "Misery Train" is more effective overall; "I'm burying my brother today," Vega mutters, ranting dreamily over Rev's bed of twinkly electro.

"Swearin' to the Flag" scores higher. Rev embeds compelling, disturbing rhythmic details in the dark, linear throb of his synth foundation, and a feverish Vega channels the best street-corner crazy guy you've ever heard: "It's been done, it's been done / the ultimate tragedy / it's been done, it's been done / the ultimate finality." The apocalyptic mood created here promptly sinks its claws into the hip-hop-influenced "Beggin' for Miracles"; listen for the jazzy counterpoint that skronks along beneath the beats and growling. Likewise, don't miss the Art Of Noise-styled disco fever-dream of "Wrong Decisions" or the echoing industrial angst-grind of "Dachau, Disney, Disco". And you thought nobody named songs after concentration camps anymore? Admittedly, music has moved on since Test Department's heyday, and it's no longer (a) a political statement or (b)particularly clever to name-check a wartime internment facility, but in this case it slips past the cultural filter. There's no explanation of the titular indictment -- Vega merely repeats the troika ad infinitum -- but there's something intangibly satisfying about it.

If you listen to only one song on American Supreme, make it "Child, It's A New World" -- a song that, in different hands, might actually have been a legitimate pop hit. Think Bryan Ferry, or even George Michael; Vega sounds like he wants to be both, and it's gloriously creepy.

Suicide's best years are behind them -- they'll probably admit as much. These days, Vega and Rev are less a band than a sort of metastatic force that exists alongside conventional music; sometimes they manage credible mimicry, burrowing sneakily into pop territory, but they can't hide their true colors for long. They are the rawest, most primitive sort of punk rock -- spontaneous, angry, vivid and vibrant -- trapped in a culture grown too sophisticated and blasé to lick its own wounds. American Supreme is odd and angry and linear, and it's likely to enjoy a fairly limited life on your music shelf, but it's also as hypnotically cathartic as blasting down countless boards of faceless Space Invaders. Sometimes you really just need a focal point for all that inner turmoil.



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