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Suicide: First Album (expanded edition)

June 21, 2011

suicide first albumToday’s roll: 52 – 55 – 81. (This is an old review using a 2d10 system)
Result:
Suicide (First Album, expanded edition) by Suicide.

Suicide’s first album is almost impossible to write about in impartial and unprejudiced terms. It’s one of those truly original seminal works in alternative/underground rock which has had such an impact on so many artists—often indirectly—that to critique it on its own merits is an almost meaningless exercise. You can pick apart the Bible from a literary standpoint, but that’s never going to change the profound impact it’s had on culture and questioning whether or not it’s great literature in and of itself is irrelevant. To talk about this record is somewhat the same. It’s a ground zero for so much music (good, bad an indifferent) that the songs themselves almost become a footnote. But, of course, the music is the reason this record remains a timeless classic, sounding as visceral and fresh today as when it was released.

To today’s ear, the New York duo’s throbbing electro-minimalism resonates like a familiar echo but in 1977 there’d been few precursors to Suicide’s utterly unique sound. Nine years earlier, Silver Apples had worked with repetitive keyboard and drum rhythms and Kraut-rock bands such as Neu! and Faust had previously been experimenting with abrasive minimalism but even in the New York art-rock scene there was hardly a long lineage for this kind of stylish, confrontational noise.

Keyboardist Martin Rev’s dark, pulsing, fuzzy and vaguely reverential rock’n’roll vamps over primitive electronic rhythms set the stage for singer Alan Vega’s bizarre, almost corny take on Elvis. More of a performance art concept than a band, Suicide was renowned for attacking their audience with words and dissonance.

From the tumbling, relentless bassline of the oft-covered “Ghost Rider” (with it’s classic refrain of “America, America is killing its youth”) onwards, the album is a mesmerizing wash of reverb-soaked nihilism. Often the drum-machine rhythm is the simple, hypnotic 8th note kick drum and tambourine pattern which would be adopted by guitar acts like Spacemen 3 and Loop a decade on—both bands also covered Suicide songs. But what really makes the album work is the way Rev’s minimalist, dark grooves are tempered with doo-wop and bubblegum pop textures. The addition of dub vocal echo effects simply adds to the surreality. “Cheree” sounds a bit like a Phil Spector production listened to through an industrial fan at a meat-packing plant.

Vega’s lyrics reflect this aesthetic perfectly. He paints pictures of switchblade violence and trashcan romance with vivid, dripping strokes. “Rocket USA” calls to mind Iggy Pop’s early work, but to call Suicide a dubby, synth-pop version of The Stooges doesn’t quite hit the mark. Despite homage being paid to almost everyone in ‘50s and ‘60s pop, there’s nothing derivative about Suicide’s first album. It’s also clearly not “pop music” by any stretch. Nor is it rock. And it’s somehow too trashy and camp to be art.

The expanded edition contains a bonus disc of live material recorded between the first and second album (also self-titled). Though the sound quality is poor, the setlist is made up of tracks butchered by Ric Ocasek’s dreadful production of the second album and it’s great to be able to hear the songs in their original raw form. The second half of the disc is a single 23 minute track from a gig in Belgium which displays the destructive chaos of a Suicide live show.

Suicide’s first album isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s bleak, harsh, theatrical and so pretentiously art-damaged that people are bound to be turned off by its sheer pomposity. Those it does connect with though, will feel like the skies have opened and golden light is shining down upon them. Love or hate, it’s an album that seldom inspires indifference.

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