Words About Music
Uncompromising noise trio White Suns is a group which has intrigued me since I first came across their 2011 record “Sinews,” a metallic hellscape of screams, sounds, and atmosphere. The band built upon this sound and improved their formula on the 2014 follow-up, “Totem,” one of my favorite albums of that year and one of the decade’s best noise records. White Suns is a band I always look forward to hearing, and upon the announcement that their latest record, “Psychic Drift,” would consist of 4 songs (which range from 6 to 15 minutes in length) intrigued and excited me.
What I ended up getting here is different from what I was expecting. This is an album of subtleties, with vocalist Kevin Barry opting for a more laid-back, sinister, spoken-word approach than the disenchanting screams which broke up the sameness on previous LPs. The instrumental palate is almost entirely composed of samples, field recordings, drones, and long stretches of ambient noise, some of which dips into harsh noise territory. This album is not for the faint of heart.
Sour highway sounds kick off the album’s opening cut, “Korea,” the longest song on the album. A barrage of fierce noise is our only guide on this psychedelic nightmare journey through the realm of the dead. A little over a minute into the song, Barry starts delivering his deadpan spoken word: “Wandering under a foreign highway/Searching for a place to sleep…” It sort of reminds me of Slint, except if Slint was being remixed by a power electronics artist. Eventually, these extended car-horns pass in favor of dubby bass and distorted static. This album so far reminds me of the sort of formula that fellow noise group Wolf Eyes would opt for, except in a much more effective manner (no disrespect intended to Wolf Eyes).
At this point in the song, we get a bit more passion in Barry’s vocal delivery, although I wish his vocals were mixed a bit higher so I could hear what he’s saying, since I’m having a hard time finding anywhere online where I can read the lyrics. The song once again transitions into another movement, this one anchored by distorted, drilling bass and synth sounds giving us some semblance of rhythm. Barry amps it up once again, this time delivering his classic shouted vocals. I love the way White Suns ramps up the intensity throughout this track while making it seem like one continuous, flowing movement from one part to the next. This track is a fucking trip, and an audacious, ambitious opening song for the record.
A synth which sounds like a bird tweeting kicks off “Pilgrim,” the album’s shortest song. Perhaps this is an intentional Slaughterhouse-Five reference, but I’m probably reading too much into it. What sounds like a train sounds off endlessly into the distance as Barry tells about “Washing up onto the shore of civilization.” A thick, icy drone pierces through as the track takes a new turn. It’s a despondent track that builds slowly, filling empty space with unique sounds that each add new textures and emotions to the song.
It’s a patient song, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been developed a bit more and lasted a couple more minutes. I think that what White Suns did with “Korea” was great because not only did it build itself up over a long period of time, it also gave us a chance to get used to the varying, quieter vocal performance before rewarding us with an unhinged, animalistic performance. Instead, “Pilgrim” just sort of reaches a conclusion without much fanfare, whereas it could have achieved quite a bit more. I understand breaking up the tracklist with shorter songs, but we’re already listening to a noise album. I think we can handle a bit more than what we’ve been given.
The 10-minute “A Year Without Summer” stumbles in the door, with some waveform sub-bass booming through, accompanied by a haunting sound (field recording? sample? synth?) I can’t quite identify. This, like the previous two songs, is hypnotic. It seems like White Suns is trying to guide the listener into a hallucinogenic past-life trance, or perhaps just a bad trip. That would’ve been a pretty apt title for the album: “Bad Trip.” I feel like this track actualizes the potential we saw on “Pilgrim,” as the handful of extra minutes allows White Suns to really develop the track and play with weird noises to their heart’s content. It sounds less restricted, more freeform. It’s not until 4 minutes in that we get vocals, with a haunting, bizarre-fucking-melody. It’s akin to John Congleton’s tenure as frontman for The pAper chAse.
This song in particular sounds like a demon possession, with earache synths and tinnitus feedback pushing a horror-film atmosphere into the song. It’s exacerbated when Barry returns with his vocals being run through some type of effects-pedal which is being manipulated, becoming its own instrument. Then he hits us with more shouted vocals: “THE ANSWER… EMERGES!!!” Fucking awesome. The song continues to build with intensity, making its case for the album’s most frightening, memorable moment. “A Year Without Summer” is to “Psychic Drift” as “Clairvoyant” was to “Totem” in terms of up-front captivation. With two minutes to spare, the track concludes in what sounds like the inside of a tornado, then the inside of a rainforest.
The album ends with the 8-minute “Medicine Walk,” which sounds like you’ve woken up in the rainforest you were dropped in by the tornado at the end of the previous song, and it’s nighttime, and you don’t know where you are or who you are. Sounds scream off in the forested darkness. Are they animals? People? Hallucinations? The anxiety and tension continue to build as mysterious sounds conjure themselves up. The album’s first proper jumpscare illuminates itself with Kevin Barry once again returning to the fold to yell at us. I believe I even made out the word “forest” somewhere at this part, so maybe I’m onto something with this album’s concept.
This track may be the album’s second shortest song, but it’s the exact opposite of “Pilgrim,” hitting us with almost instant intensity and volume. It makes its case for being the album’s scariest, most bizarre, unpredictable song, and it’s certainly a fitting closer. What sounds like a didgeridoo sounds off as the album’s second half kicks in, and you can practically hear Barry’s veins protruding in his head and neck as he continues his sick, sinister verse.
There are a few complaints I have with “Psychic Drift.” For an album that only includes 4 songs, even if these songs are essentially a handful of shorter songs stitched together through seamless transitions, it isn’t always giving us the most essential material. And while its peaks and valleys help make it such a thrilling and complete listen, I wish that White Suns had done a better job of stitching together the core 4 songs into more of a seamless, holistic experience.
Like I stated previously, I also wish that “Pilgrim” had been developed into a more dynamic song, because it certainly could have been longer and it’s the only track that I think could have been improved with an extended length. For the most part, though, I think that this album is twisted and disgusting, an appropriate follow-up that only has me more-and-more excited for the band’s next release. It may not appeal to people who dislike noise music or are unfamiliar with it, and I can certainly seeing fans of the band’s previous work perhaps being disillusioned due to the lack of guitar/drum freakouts in favor of longer, steadier compositions. However, I think this is White Suns’ most creative, challenging album to date, and I can only expect that they’ll up the ante when it’s time for LP6.
SCORE — 8.50 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Korea, A Year Without Summer, Medicine Walk