White Suns have just released their latest album, Totem, on Flenser Records. (Buy it on Amazon.) While they have been around since 2006, the trio just began releasing full-lengths in 2011, and Totem is their third. The trio employs traditional rock instruments—drums, guitars and electronics—and deftly blends power electronics and improv with an abstracted take on punk and hardcore.
Totem opens with “Priest in the Laboratory,” a fierce piece of angular punk noise. Dana Matthiessen pounds out a heavily cadenced beat, peppered with blasts, while Kevin Barry‘s guitar shrieks out a riff which shares the DNA of early ’90s hardcore at its most unhinged, when bands like Universal Order of Armageddon and Angel Hair brought a sense of crazed acrobatics to their riffs. Barry’s vocals are punishing at times and softly spoken at others, reminiscent of Craw’s Joe McTighe, and the whole thing is covered in a layer of electronic filth courtesy of Rick Visser. But for all its bombast, the song eventually winds down to a stop-and start drone. And the two that follow it, “Prostrate” and “Disjecta Membra,” pick up this thread of nuance and run with it. The real skill buried in White Suns’ oeuvre is their mastery of dynamics, which makes Totem an exercise in mood and atmosphere rather than just an unrelenting wave of harshness.
While the idea of a band blending live instruments with elements of electronic noise is far from a novel one, it nevertheless is a major strength of White Suns’ performance. Each element on Totem is vital and independent, yet sensitive to everything else going on. This lends the album an almost free jazz appeal, and it’s what sets White Suns apart. Despite the relatively harsh sounds produced, the interplay is highly nuanced at all times.
The band’s cohesion is perhaps best illustrated on the song “World-Lock.” The music starts quietly, with clean guitar hinting at an underlying rhythmic pulse, elements of feedback swelling and dropping away in the background. Slowly, the intensity builds, and the electronics and drums pick up the pulse. Every element gets a turn in the foreground, while the vocals ride over the top. Three-quarters of the way through, the guitar and electronics begin a hypnotic, repetitive cycle, while the vocals and drums join together for a series of explosive cadences. Once the climax is achieved, the piece begins to unwind and slowly fall apart.
Album closer “Carrion” makes a fitting end to the listening experience. During its seven-minute duration, the group hits upon every element of their sound, from harsh hardcore-influenced attacks to quieter moments of unease. The sound is completely unsettling, due in no small part to the vocals, which clearly enunciate surreal screeds throughout the album’s length. Many noise releases present dark themes strictly through song titles and disturbing cover art, leaving the listener to help project content on to the abstract canvas, but White Suns achieve their experience through a combination of lyrics, dynamics and an organic interplay made all the more disturbing because it is produced by humans and not just machines.
Allen Griffin is a member of Coffinworm, whose new album IV.I.VIII is out now. Buy it from Amazon.
Stream “Priest in the Laboratory”: