Hold/Still is an unsteady album. It’s a consistent, methodical unsteadiness that hangs a song on a single blurred synth tone, a suspension bridge between two guitars acres apart in the mix, and then shoots it with bolts of electricity (“UN-NO”). It’s guitar music backed with a steady throb of dystopian dance and spiked with sudden, unexpected sounds that can be hard to place at first hearing. It’s tempting to call it the product of an unsteady mind too, though of course it’s impossible to know.
Montreal’s Suuns don’t have much in the way of an origin story. They’re former members of Land of Talk, Young Galaxy, and a handful of other Québécois bands. Their most dramatic identity shift to date was giving up their original band name, Zeroes, in favor of Suuns (pronounced “soons”), which still means “zeroes” but as it’s said in Thai. Hold/Still is their third album, and while one could probably swap out a song or two with 2013’s more lighthearted Image Du Futur without anybody noticing, the latest effort spends most of its time cranking the vise tighter. There’s no room for the melodious keyboards on Futur’s “Mirror Mirror” in Hold/Still’s sonic landscape.
From the top, Hold/Still bites down hard: SSonically, Suuns’ latest falls somewhere between the churning panic of Liars and the dark indietronica of latter-day Notwist. “Mortise and Tenon” is built from the antimatter DNA of a laid-back pop jam, simultaneously propelled and restrained by its skipping-stone beat and “oh-oh” hook. A mortise and tenon is a woodworking joint, the kind that might allow the long side of a cheap bed frame to slot into the post and lends itself easily to sexual allusions. H/S is an experiment in creating music about strong urges in a world without joy.
This promising record hits its groove in the three-song run of “Mortise and Tenon,” “Translate,” and “Brainwash,” with paranoiac lead single “Paralyzer” bringing up the rear. Isolated, frontman Ben Shemie’s vocal track from “Translate” might almost be soothing. As recorded, it’s a document of paranoia that signs all its melodies in triplicate. “Brainwash” builds around a slowly melting background, but just when it’s lured you into early Deerhunter-esque complacency, it statics out and flatlines. By the time the song resurfaces, the only word left is “brainwash.” (Point taken.) If you remember just one moment from Hold/Still, it will be “Paralyzer,” where the meaningless-sounding “uh-unh, uh-unh, uuuu everything” somehow packs the weight of the world over a nightmarish banshee sound effect and ominous bass.
In the vocabulary of game designers, “twitch” games are the opposite of strategy: They demand quick thinking and fast reactions, rather than creativity or long-term planning. Hold/Still is twitchy, and not just in the undeniably nervous-sounding “Translate” or “Careful.” It doesn’t have a concept, other than maybe a psyche rattling apart. Its lyrics are repetitive, not narrative — like Tetris, they’re designed to do the same thing at greater levels of intensity. You can only stack bricks so fast, and maxing out won’t bring you any more insight on the human condition. Suuns’ limits as a band may be inherent or self-imposed, but in practice what they create feels insular, and lacking context, eventually hollow. Maybe the band knows a story that unifies the fear and desire for control expressed here, but more likely, you’ll have to siphon it from your own subconscious.