23 April 2021
An album recorded by Suicide’s Alan Vega at his mid-Nineties creative peak finally sees the light of day. It’s been well worth the quarter-century wait, says Tim Cooper.
Buy it from Sister Ray Records.
Whenever a legendary artist dies and a posthumous album arrives a few years later, you can usually hear the sound of barrels being scraped in a bid to squeeze every last cent out of their legacy.
Happily, nothing could be further from that with Mutator, a genuine “lost” album by Suicide’s late great Alan Vega, recorded in the mid-1990s and shelved only because he was producing such prolific art and music at that time.
Following on from his posthumous IT in 2017 – different, as he was working on that up to his death late the previous year – Mutator was recorded amid an especially fertile creative period for Vega.
In the space of two years from 1995-96 he released four albums – Power On To Zero Hour, New Raceion, Dujang Prang and Cubist Blues (with Alex Chilton) – and had two more collaborations in the can (Endless and Righteous Lite).
There was even more completed work, and plenty of it, but no time or space to release it. The good news for fans is that Mutator is the first in what is planned to be a series of archival releases from the Vega vault on Sacred Bones Records. The even better news is that it stands up alongside anything he’s done.
Vega’s collaborator on Mutator, as with all his post-1990 solo albums, is his wife Liz Lamere, herself a keyboard player, who discovered the lost recordings with the artist’s close friend and confidant Jared Artaud of The Vacant Lots. Together they mixed the tapes and posthumously produced Mutator.
Listening now, it stands up well against his solo output, and sits comfortably alongside the output of Suicide, with all the hallmarks we would expect from the artists who invented Techno Noir: throbbing electronic beats, surges of distorted noise, and echoed vocals that run the gamut from sinister whispers to threatening screams of rage.
“Our primary purpose for going into the studio was to experiment with sound, not to ‘make records,'” Lamere explains. “I was playing the machines with Alan manipulating sounds. I played riffs while Alan morphed the sounds being channelled through the machines.”
At the time of the Mutator sessions, Vega was inspired by what was happening on the streets of New York: not only the hip hop scenes that were exploding throughout the outer boroughs, but also the literal sounds of the streets – the traffic noise and industrial ambience of city living.
His urban poetry paints pictures of a city on the brink of breakdown – these were the dog days of Giuliani’s pale impersonation of Travis Bickle during his tenure as Mayor of New York – the last days before the destruction of 9/11 and the economic recession.
Even the monosyllabic song titles capture the city as it was then: Fist. Filthy. Muscles. Breathe. Trinity. Muscles references “masters of disasters” and “life on the monster beach” while Filthy’s rat-a-tat-tat rhythm prefigures Portishead’s almost identical Machine Gun more than a decade later. You can almost see the gangs on the street; almost have to take cover to seek shelter.
Much of Mutator is a howl of rage. The opening number, Trinity, sets the scene with Vega reciting the title in a shuddering voice – sinister other voices crying back “Father” “Son” and “Holy Ghost” – before a screech of electronic noise and a propulsive rhythm introduce Fist, a track that delivers a punch to the gut as visceral as its title suggests.
The stark, brooding Nike Soldier, by contrast, is all tension and claustrophobia, a mood enhanced by Jacqueline Castel’s video, starring Kris Esfandiari as a karaoke Vega against a backdrop of his own light sculptures and dressed in some of his own clothes, including his signature beret, before mutating into him over the course of the song.
Electronic noise ebbs and flows, surging like a tsunami before retreating to create more tension, as Vega sings of crucifixion and blood, before reaching a frenzy as he yells: “Destroy the mutilators.”
The solitary change of mood comes with Samurai, an imaginary movie soundtrack whose soaring melody could come straight from a David Lynch film, with impressionistic lyrics that take in the Magi, missing girls, sweet kisses and a police officer threatening the kids.
Lamere and Aftaud, along with creative director Michael Handis, are now spearheading the Alan Vega Vault project, which aims to bring rare and unreleased work from throughout Vega’s career to the public for the first time. He was still creating right up to his death, leaving a legacy – the Vega Vault – of some of the most cutting-edge music ever recorded.
Suicide were the first band ever to adopt the word “punk” when they performed a Punk Mass in 1970 and were as influential as they were underrated at the time. It seems that influence is set to continue even after Vega’s death.
As Artaud says: “Mutator bridges the gap between the past and present. It’s something we feel Alan would have been really proud of, seeing this lost album released today. In so many ways, his music is needed now more than ever.”
Pre-order Mutator here: https://www.sacredbonesrecords.com/products/sbr271-alan–vega-mutator