The winter of 2010 was one for the ages if you lived anywhere between DC and New York in February. Maybe the summer haze made you forget, but 3 feet of snow fell in most places. The federal government shut down for a week. Cops idiotically broke up a 1,000-person snowball fight. My sister had a week off school but couldn’t go sledding because the snow was too deep. Now it’s time to prepare for another long slog through the cold and dark. Our eight days of lights come freakishly early this year, meaning we have to endure the neighbor’s gaudy landing strip of a house (I’m a purist: candles over bulbs anytime) all that much longer after anticipation has given way to a trashcan full of gelt wrappers and a grease trap clogged with fry oil.
Our neighbor to the north is of course no stranger to winter, or l’hiver as they prefer to call it in QC, the provincial abbreviation for Québec, from whence hail Suuns, out with a debut on Secretly Canadian (or not so secret in their case), Zeroes QC. Montreal’s ascent to continental hub of indie rock and other creative pursuits has long since been assured in the post-Arcade Fire era, yet they keep cranking out an outsized portion of musical talent. At the recent Ninjatune 20th anniversary tour, I saw two very capable Montrealers take the stage. Poirier, the province’s finest DJ, continues to draw sizzling lines between the multicultural city and Caribbean outposts (Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad). Kid Koala, a mainstay of abstract hip-hop with his appealingly glitchy beats, equally impressed.
Suuns at times sounds like the latter in a highly different format: guitar, bass, and keyboard. “Armed for Peace” opens the album with a sparse and slowed kick drum, a restrained guitar vibration, and a solitary handclap. Their use of instruments to soothingly simple, yet driving effect is common, especially on intros and outros, in “Pie IX,” “Arena,” and “Up Past the Nursery.” However, the tone that the opening track sets doesn’t carry through, as halfway through it – like many numbers – opens up into rock guitar virtuosity that I unfortunately find anonymous.
Suuns nevertheless creates a consistent atmosphere out of inconsistent parts – length being one of the most variable: under two-minute “Marauder” back-to-back with seven-minute centerpiece “Sweet Nothing”. Winter and its attendant emotions is an obvious motivation, as Ben Shemie intones on the latter, “It’s always cold and lasts forever,” a refrain he echoes on the penultimate song with its titular concern, “fear: it’s cold and it’s gray / I just can’t explain.” There is a claustrophobia to Zeroes QC, a desire to escape the harmonic buzz – a TV exuding only static? – that underpins “Sweet Nothing.” Here they channel my favorite winter band, Mission of Burma with the kind of sonic play that typified Martin Swope’s tape loop manipulation, as well as some refreshingly angular guitar work that resonates with surprising twang.
The dynamic tension between restraint and outburst is another recurring theme for Suuns. They are at their most engaging when they exhibit a bottled-up, minimalist aesthetic. For example, the lyrics on “Up Past the Nursery” are spit through pursed lips, as though he yearns to get out of a tiny apartment but knows he must wait until spring. They are buried by distortion on “Pie IX,” unable to escape the cloudiness of a January day. But then there are moments where the noise is unleashed, from the frenetic pace of “Marauder” to the bombast of “Gaze,” with mixed results. The album’s concluding note, “Organ Blues,” synthesizes the two impulses by starting with a funereal dirge that recalls Arcade Fire’s debut (the shadow from which all Montreal indie bands must still seek an egress), then transcending that kind of polish in post-rock wall of sound.
It feels like yet another cold-weather moment that also occasions a meditation on the intriguing plural in the album’s title – zeroes as the plunging mercury, the computational glare of binary, starting over from scratch, a baseline. While Suuns has not found a bad place to start, they’ve got another Canadian winter to work on an album that will stay in rotation until the first shoots of spring.
By: Greg Scruggs
Cover Art: Harrison Freeman