File #2: Band of Susans, Here Comes Success (1995, Restless Records)
Band of Susans: the iron fist in the velvet glove; beauty and brawn; Sonic Youth and the Rolling Stones. All the elements that make Band of Susans truly great also make their relative obscurity baffling. Emerging from the same No Wave scene in New York City that spawned Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, and with a deliriously rusty sound that encompasses both, Band of Susans lasted only a decade, but left behind a veritable bounty of great music. Despite their ability to assault listeners and audiences alike through sheets of distortion and the gravelly crunch of throbbing percussion, Band of Susans’ music succeeds by embracing contrapuntal melody. It’s a neat trick, and the balance between the dark corners and the spritely stretches is partially indebted to the Stones—a group they liked enough to cover (twice).
In sum, Band of Susan enthrall through its elastic, yawning guitar-driven sound, pulsating rhythms, and ability to work within and press beyond typical song structures. The group has been called shoegaze, which is fine, but it’s also acceptable to label them a rock band, albeit one that favors the complexity and repetitive rhythms of post-punk or avant-rock. As a Band of “Susans”—one of the more interesting factoids is that the group did start with three Susans, but various lineup shifts meant losing two of the three Susans (guitarists Lyall and Tallman); to say nothing of picking up and losing guitarist Page Hamilton, who left to create metal-grunge heavyweights Helmet—the name, perhaps fittingly, became ironic by the time the group hit its stride.
Yet, irony doesn’t comfortably fit Band of Susans, which doesn’t mean the group is humorless. In fact, calling your most challenging (in terms of patience required) and last album Here Comes Success, as well as a general proclivity for a silly song title (“The Last Temptation of Susan”), suggest the group embraced an easygoing approach to its seriously brilliant music that all but guaranteed a niche audience. Regardless, led by principles Robert Poss (guitar/vocals) and Susan Stenger (bass/vocals), Band of Susans went on a bafflingly great three album run before closing up shop. Starting with the group’s gorgeous, buzzing third album, The Word and the Flesh (1991)—the most accessible and perhaps finest hour by the Susans—the group went sonically more ambitious on the smoky, terse Veil (1993) before pushing even further with Here Comes Success.
Whereas The Word and the Flesh opened with a roar of guitars, and Veil began with a cascade of ricocheting guitars, the final album in the group’s vaunted triptych opens with a low guitar figure, gently played. Only after three minutes of a slow burn does the nine minute track, named for a victim of Jack the Ripper (“Elizabeth Stride [1843-1888]”), build into something more looming and monstrous. The song’s opening drawl and title only hint at the malice and menace enacted by its rampaging dénouement. It’s a shot across the bow, and the rest of the album is a colossal tour de force that consistently ups the ante. Here Comes Success is such an astonishing culmination of the band’s strengths and experiments, an incredibly difficult balance to execute, that it would have likely rendered any follow-up (however strong) pallid by contrast.
Throughout Here Comes Success, Poss never gilds the lily with his hammer-fist vocals, and Stenger’s bass never loses prominence amidst the guitar-heavy atmosphere—her funky, serpentine opening to the otherwise cacophonous and pummeling “Hell Bent” is remarkable. Many of the album’s highlights lean toward the lengthy side. At eight minutes “Dirge” is a beautifully droning ballad, while the 10 minute instrumental “In the Eye of the Beholder (For Rhys)” allows for fits and bursts of manic energy between generous stretches of locked down shoegaze. Still, the jaunty twists of “Two Jacks” and the funneled drive of closer “Sermon on Competition, Part 1 (Nothing is Recoupable)” offer glimpses of the tight, melody rock group buried under the layers of distortion. An unequivocally fantastic album from an equivocal Band of “Susans,” Here Comes Success is ripe for rediscovery.