Few bands since Suicide have been able to pull off so much with so little. On their 1977 debut album, keyboardist Martin Rev and Alan Vega made nightmares out of mere sketches of American dreams, making ’50s-style rock ‘n’ roll sound like a proper haunting or turning the sad fates of Springsteenian characters into something much more violent and terrifying (a tribute that The Boss would repay five years later). And they did it all with just vocals and a lone organ with drum machine—”the instrument”—that reconceptualized what punk sounded like without abandoning its principles or even casting off its seediest, scuzziest aesthetic. None of the bands that Suicide shared the stage with in New York in the ’70s proved as adept at making something so accessibly unsettling.
Vega was on the verge of turning 40 when Suicide released their debut, but that album transformed him into a singularly strange, romantic and frequently terrifying crooner, one whose vocal limitations arguably made him a legendary frontman better than proper voice lessons ever could. He applied that presence—part dreamily tender and part pure confrontation—to all of his projects from the ’70s on, whether on solo recordings, with Suicide or collaborating with glitchy industrialists like Pan Sonic. And he recorded a lot of material at that, having delivered around 30 albums with his various projects—which makes the existence of a whole batch of unreleased songs on new collection Mutator, released via Sacred Bones, all the more remarkable of an excavation.
One of a planned series of releases from Vega’s vault, Mutator comprises recordings captured in the mid-’90s with his wife and collaborator Liz Lamere, shelved and only rediscovered within the past couple of years. Vega’s deranged bark on tracks like “Filthy” (“It’s filthy!”) coupled with the scuzzy, industrial-electro production that marks most of these tracks finds the collection at times feeling like a companion piece to Endless, the 1998 album that Vega made with Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen. This isn’t the damaged doo wop of Vega’s earliest recordings with Suicide, but it’s not that far from it either, exploring a more contemporary permutation of those dirges with the pulsing buzz of EBM on “Nike Soldier,” the harrowing collagework of Einsturzende Neubauten on “Trinity,” and an almost techno-like minimalism on “Muscles.”
The tracks that form Mutator weren’t discovered in the shape that they appear here; Lamere and Jared Artaud completed the production work only in the past two years, giving them a contemporary update after collecting dust on the shelf for over two decades. Yet to hear a standout like the hypnotic synth-funk warble of “Fist” or the dream pop bliss of “Samurai,” it’s easy to imagine these songs as standout moments more or less from any time throughout Vega’s career. Perhaps that’s because their anchor remains his inimitable growl, less a melodic device than a fucked-up narration through places most of us wouldn’t want to be caught alone after hours. His best moments always felt like the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of someone only letting us in halfway through the sequence, and these are no different. Though these songs weren’t finished while Vega was still alive, there’s a feeling of inevitability in these wonderfully deranged dirges—it sounds like what you might imagine a contemporary Alan Vega album would sound like. Which makes the fact that their seeds were planted 25 years ago even more remarkable.
Label: Sacred Bones
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.