Of the three original Susans who named this noise-loving New York group in the mid-’80s, only bassist/singer Susan Stenger emerged as a mainstay alongside guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Robert Poss (ex-Western Eyes). Together, they navigated the band through high- powered sonic experiments in the realm of rock songdom. With connections to noted downtown composer (and earplug posterboy) Rhys Chatham’s ensembles as well more conventional bands, the early BoS efforts set simple, repetitive chord/bass patterns in motion and then slathered on layers of vocals and noisy guitar to produce a brisk, visceral flow of magmatic melodicism. The four songs on Blessing and Curse, produced by Poss, locate an exciting niche between anti-music chaos and accessible rock. Dense without being forbidding, “You Were an Optimist” and the speeding “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” (an original) clearly indicate the Susans’ intriguing direction and skill.
Hope Against Hope (titled after an EP track that was remixed and included; a second appears in a new version here) is an improvement on all fronts, revealing a bracingly loud — but never strident — band that seemingly can’t put enough guitar electricity on vinyl to satisfy itself. Besides his febrile production, Poss’ songs are better formed here, with chord progressions that actually resolve. (In a touching show of pop cognizance, “I the Jury” quotes the Stones’ “Last Time.”) Anchored by a solidly plain rhythm section, the storm of strings continues to rage unabated, making Hope Against Hope something of a rockier American response to Psychocandy. (Just ignore the English-major lyrics.) The CD adds the two remaining songs — “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Sometimes” — from Blessing and Curse.
Down two Susans, a three-guitar quintet containing future Helmet founder Page Hamilton made Love Agenda with no diminution in power; the band’s ability to harness distortion, wall-shaking volume and feedback (keeping things just below the chaos line) into well-structured song forms remains a marvelous achievement; the pretentiously poetic art-school lyrics are another matter. The barreling “Because of You” and the droney “It’s Locked Away” are the album’s most impressive tracks. The CD adds a loud but unconvincing cover of the Stones’ “Child of the Moon.”
The same incarnation appears on the 1988 segment of The Peel Sessions: a motor-city cover of the Gang of Four’s “I Found That Essence Rare,” one bruising song each from the two previous albums and a lumbering second version of “Child of the Moon.” Adding to the genealogical complexity, the Peel EP’s other two tracks, from 1989, capture an otherwise lost inter-album permutation of players doing Love Agenda‘s “Which Dream Came True” and Wire’s “Too Late.” Unlike many such essentially live-in- the studio efforts, this one is well worth owning, and not just as a historical curiosity.
Despite the presence of two new axe-grinders, The Word and the Flesh maintains, even fine-tunes, the Susans’ dedication to both content and presentation. Neither Poss nor Stenger is much of a vocalist, but the band’s failings in that department are overshadowed by the resolute maelstrom of guitar pressure, which — as distinct from the Jesus and Mary Chain’s fuzz — is kept on a strict low-reverb diet and carefully assembled into a roar of distinct instruments rather than one hazy propwash. For an out-and-out lease-breaker, this is a richly rewarding and surprisingly accessible piece of music. In tribute to its former employer, the group ends the album with a cover of Chatham’s “Guitar Trio.”
The Now remix of “Now Is Now” (a song on The Word and the Flesh) is fine but unessential, as is the quintet’s seductively subdued interpretation of the Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” Since two of the EP’s three new songs also crop up on Veil, it’s strictly a footnote. But it’s also a dividing line, separating the band’s original self-made deluge from a reorientation, first intimated in the wavering density and stylistic peregrinations of Veil. Letting their generally strong songwriting slide a notch, Poss and Stenger (with stalwart drummer Ron Spitzer and a pair of guitarists) back up the noise truck and unload crank-it-to-eleven radioactive landfill in shapeless piles. Lacking the spiny concentration that made it all go forward in cogent doses in the past, Veil is a long, tedious drone, more like a dry run for material yet to be written. Shifting close to British shoegazing at times, Veil lacks the melodies and structural designs that would validate the medium-over-message approach.
Wired for Sound is a two-CD (three-LP) British retrospective; Here Comes Success, however, is an all-new album that explains where Band of Susans was headed but didn’t reach on Veil. The central thesis remains thick, vibrant guitar textures that inscribe slow kaleidoscopic circles around propulsive beats and occasionally stand back for vocals, but the group embraces dynamics like never before: “Elizabeth Stride (1843-1888)” makes calm progress from quiet to monumental, getting the album off on a rewardingly different foot. Other tracks explore similarly sloped terrain. “Stone Like a Heart” puts angular guitar slashes and feedback behind an uncommon percussion pattern, while “Pardon My French” jumps back to pithy songdom, and “Two Jacks,” taking a page from Sonic Youth, narrows the attack to a manageable ribbon of skipping aggression. The monolithic slab of “In the Eye of the Beholder (For Rhys)” casts out the demons and pays further homage to Chatham at the same time. Although it’s the least colorful undertaking on this invigorated, invigorating record, the track is clearly therapeutic.
Made while Poss was still in Chatham’s band, Sometimes predates the Susans’ first record but features two of its members — Alva Rogers on backing vocals and drummer Ron Spitzer on piano. A tentative and transitional bridge between career stages, the eight songs — which include early versions of “Sometimes” and Hope Against Hope‘s “Throne of Blood,” as well as an otherwise unrecorded song entitled “Blessing and Curse” — cover both regular rock and surging noise.
Poss fills one side of Inverse Guitar with formless, ear-splitting 1987 guitar-damage improvisations; the other half documents his (and Susan Tallman’s) collaboration with electronic music composer Nicolas Collins on three failed experiments that employ familiar life sounds and backwards manipulation of guitar and bass.
After Band of Susans called it quits in 1995, Poss involved himself in numerous projects with other artists. He joined Stenger’s experimental supergroup, the Brood, for a critically acclaimed London performance and teamed up with Stenger and Wire’s Bruce Gilbert as gilbertpossstenger (an alliance resulting in manchester&london); he contributed to recordings by Chatham, Collins, Phill Niblock, Ben Neill and Seth Josel and collaborated with composer David Dramm and visual artist Margret Wibmer, among others. Poss also produced records for Combine, Tone and the Meat Joy.
Released together in late 2002, Distortion Is Truth and Crossing Casco Bay feature live material and studio recordings that offer an overview of Poss’s own guitar-based experimentation since BoS. The title, Distortion Is Truth, sums up the theory underlying much of Poss’ work: that rock’s authentic essence is the element traditionally considered non-essential and inauthentic. Poss rejects the idea that distortion (a component produced by accident or by deliberate manipulation) is a corruption of pure, true sound that either requires correction or merely supplements the primary sound. He turns that notion on its head, making distorted, impure sounds the foundation of his compositions. These two records put that theory into practice.
Distortion Is Truth is the more diverse of the two albums. Built around feedback — rock’s paradigmatic accidental noise — “You Know the Drill” succinctly exemplifies the aesthetic. Although he explores the possibilities of guitar across 16 eclectic tracks, the results frequently don’t sound like a guitar because of extensive processing. This is most striking on ambient numbers like “Radio Free Albemuth Revisited,” which suggests the music of deep space, and the dense, dreamlike “Brakhage.” But while the avant-garde experimentation transforms the guitar into radically different identities, there are some more traditional sounds here: “Showbiz” has a jazzy flavor, and “Memphis/Little Rock” pays tribute to the blues. Other numbers, like “You Were Relentless” (on which the ghost of BoS lurks), flirt with a more familiar rock idiom while simultaneously deconstructing it. Equally successful is the material that finds Poss blending electronics and guitars to focus more explicitly on his trademark drones, for instance on the buzzing, pulsing “Henix Sambolo.”
Crossing Casco Bay is more of a minimalist affair, almost exclusively drone-oriented. A pair of layered, looping numbers comprise 40 of its 50 minutes: the title track and “Drift,” a live recording featuring Stenger on guitar and Kato Hideki on bowed double bass. On these tracks, Poss eschews melody to craft sparse, trance- inducing epics. They underscore his knack for creating engaging musical soundscapes in the seeming absence of melody, progression and variation. These droning textures come to life with myriad patterns emerging, coalescing, and dissipating. Elsewhere, music is completely absent — “Daybreak in Hanga Roa” is a recording of ambient noise on Easter Island (rain, birds and insects). On a more conventional note, Poss resurrects Band of Susans’ “Throne of Blood” and injects an Eastern groove, thanks to multi-percussionist Pete Lockett’s tabla.