Arts, Features

REVIEW: ‘Felt’ by Suuns makes the most out of minimalist instrumentation

The band Suuns will release its new album “Felt” on March 2. PHOTO COURTESY JOE YARMUSH

At what point is something so off-kilter and jumbled that you can’t listen to it? Experimental music, whether it be rock or a different subgenre, is not always appreciated upon first listen. The Velvet Underground and Nico’s 1967 self-titled album was so left-field for its time that it only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years. But now, more than 50 years later, some recognize it as the greatest album ever made.

Since that album’s debut, every experimental artist has put forth albums trying to push the benchmark set by The Velvet Underground and Nico’s 1960s release, striving to find that perfect balance between accessibility and strangeness.

Next in line to create musical order with disorder is Suuns. The Montreal-based band’s new record hasn’t surpassed the experimental benchmark, but they still executed the task brilliantly.

“Felt” is barebones for an art rock/experimental electronic album. Suuns singer/guitarist Ben Shemie was quoted in a press release saying the record is “looser” than their last one. He calls it the band’s “minimalist overture.” The description is fitting. There are several moments on the record where it feels like the members could have filled in the gaps with more instrumentation.

The minimalist approach of the album is evident on the first track “Look No Further,” but to an extreme extent compared to the rest of the album. The song sounds like a poor mimicry of “Screen Shot” by Swans. “Look No Further” is obviously meant to sound menacing and mysterious, but the instrumentation, or lack thereof, is hardly impressionable. For lack of a better word, it’s too “normal.” All the components of an experimental rock song are there, but they barely make an impact.

The album’s pace picks up, however. “X-ALT” combines a wonderful, hypnotic guitar-picking pattern with lo-fi vocals and a wild saxophone solo. Then there is “Watch You, Watch Me,” the album’s longest track. On an album with few crescendos, if any, the vocals are cut off about halfway through to leave room for the rest of the band members to play their instruments at their fullest extents. The result is a cacophonous mirage of sound that perfectly fits the record.

Moving down the tracklist, Suuns takes a break from the experimental approach, but only for a moment. “Baseline” is a casual ode to classic synthpop by Kraftwerk, but with a jangly guitar lead that anchors the track. It’s not saturated with complex musical tropes. Instead, it’s a simple break from those tropes.

The listener is placed right back into the action on “After the Fall.” A distorted guitar chord moves from ear to ear with booming 808 bass lines as the backdrop. It’s oddly captivating. This explosive sound appears later on the album in two main instances. The first is “Daydream.” As on “Watch You, Watch Me,” the drums are an aggressive complement to the lo-fi synth rhythm. And the speed of these components continues to build throughout the song.

Then there is the outlier, “Moonbeams.” The song is just over two minutes, meaning it functions more as an interlude. Still, it is a remarkable interlude. The abrasive synths and booming kicks make the track one of the most encapsulating. If “Felt” is Suuns’ minimalist overture, “Moonbeams” is Suuns’ minimalist opus. The problem is that it could be the perfect staple between two of the more aggressive songs but instead it feels out of place.

The album still has glaring negative aspects to it, the first being the tracklist. There is no clear mood with the order of the songs. There is no way to predict what musical motif will come next. The result is an album that, while captivating, lacks cohesion in several spots. Then there are the lyrics and vocal delivery. The vocoder that Ben Shemie’s voice is processed through may sound cool, but it’s on every track. After the first two songs, it seems banal. Still, those are only two minor defects on an otherwise great project.

Suuns made a maximal album built from a minimal base of instrumentation. That is not to say that “Felt” is a flawless magnum opus. What it does say is that Sunns nailed it.

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