Suuns – Hold/Still & Bibio – A Mineral Love: Comparative Album Reviews

Though such a struggle may have only existed in some people’s minds, if there was one between digital and analog music recording and creation, there’s no question that digital came out on top without ever even having to dig a trench. Does this make any remaining pockets of resistance akin to those apocryphal soldiers hiding in the hills above old battlefields who don’t know the war is over? Has the price of victory come with a tax of lost luster?

Instead of being humored as holdouts, modern analog practitioners like John Vanderslice, with his Tiny Telephone studios in the Bay Area, or Phil Elverum with The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington, are respected keepers of the flame. Similarly, if the vinyl resurgence is sometimes overstated, it still creates a legitimate shift in the marketplace. The value of real physical instruments captured in smooth, curving soundwaves is persuasive currency for some. Perhaps, however, more attention should be paid to the dialogue that can be had between electronic and analog music, to reach a détente if not to start drafting a peaced accord.

Suuns – Hold/Still
(Secretly Canadian)

Suuns - Hold Still Album Review

Suuns, who made it on to the 2013 Polaris Prize longlist for their last album, Images Du Futur, have thus far slipped most easily into the “rock” classification, but that’s a slippery distinction as well. The Montreal band are overt about their electronic influences. Regarding their new album, Hold/Still, drummer Liam O’Neill noted that “for a song to be Suuns, it has to be colored by electronics.” Bass player Max Henry frequently turns to his synthesizers, and Hold/Still‘s eleven songs rarely come across as ‘guitar, bass, and drums’ music, though those are still often the tools at hand.

Bibio – A Mineral Love (Warp Records)

Suuns - Hold Still Album Review

A Mineral Love, the new album from the British producer Bibio, arrives with the proclamation that it was made using all real instrumentation – something that would have hardly needed to be said back in the era(s) that the record fondly emulates. Now would be a good time for those who came for Ambivalence Avenue and wandered off sometime thereafter to make their way back over. The album gathers a previous generation’s urban-pulsed styles and signifiers and refashions them as pastoral comfort food for the next. A-or-B categorization doesn’t suit Bibio’s body of work, but he is known as electronic musician (albeit an organic-leaning one), and previous records like Mind Bokeh set up the inclination to hear A Mineral Love as driven by samples and programming. That, purposefully, is not the case here.

The relationship dynamic between synthetic and natural music in 2016 is central to both A Mineral Love and Hold/Still. The former is the work of an electronic-rooted musician pursuing an ideal of the “real”; the latter finds four people using “real” instruments to approximate electronic music. Neither can fully escape the reputations that precede them. It takes a while to wrap one’s head around the fact that there are no samples on A Mineral Love, and you could play a legitimately difficult game of “Is That a Guitar?” throughout Hold/Still.

Suuns – Hold/Still
(Secretly Canadian)

Acoustic and digital sounds have intermingled in popular music since at least the late ’60s, and in this era of technology’s increased affordability, the two have produced hybrid offspring like folktronica. Hold/Still, in comparison to that genre’s often hyperactive and heartfelt tendencies, would be the dark side of the force. It broods, seethes and snarls. Its pervasive, guttural low end and cold, rough edges would suit a hesitant walk through dark, dripping alleyways.

“I feel it falling/Down, down/I hear you calling”, goes “Fall”, setting the tone and moral condition with fried guitar distortion and relentless pounding. The throbbing “Instrument” is like Images Du Futur standout “2020”, stepped outside on a cold clear night to smoke a joint laced with opium. “Look at the sky…/ I want to believe…/ I want to receive…” singer-guitarist Ben Shemie sings, confessing druggy, dubby repetition, with sex and the X-Files pulling his mind in different directions. The guitar on “UN-NO” evokes rising tension in a very literal way by hitting a string as it slowly winds up and up.

That tension is finally released in “Translate”, the culmination of side A. Things begin to unravel as the second half progresses. “Brainwash” tears into halves the deep-sea beats and barbed wire melodies that entwine across Hold/Still up to that point. Shemie becomes more prone to laconic spells and cryptic outpourings. By “Infinity”, he’s worn down and scattered, turning over “four thoughts at the same time.”


Bibio – A Mineral Love (Warp Records)

Meanwhile, spring has sprung in Bibio’s world, “Petals” gently pushing out into the slowly warming light. Led by gentle acoustic guitar, the song is a seasonal invocation that implores you to “Spare the fret that will make you miss all of summer.” There’s also a flash of a charmingly retro hippie agrarian streak: “Don’t wear a tie that will choke you to death in the city/ Take it off and forget.” The good fight against urban life’s drain is explicitly laid out again a few songs later on “Town & Country”: “Your time is eaten by the city/ You sweat for dimes and then you’re counting days and weeks without them…/ Your dream is somewhere in the country/ You crave the air and all the flowers that are free to gather there”.

Country or folk music this is not, however. “Feeling” grooves on mid-tempo soul bass and squealing keyboard runs. “Why So Serious”, featuring a note-perfect guest vocal spot from Olivier Daysoul, is an ’80s funk time capsule cracked open, hitting all the neon pleasure sensors without ever going over the top. The loping bounce of “With the Thought of Us” even tosses in what sounds like the same synth pad used prominently in Robin S’ 1993 hit “Show Me Love”, only played a smidge slower. Elsewhere, what could have easily been a conspicuous appearance by Gotye on “The Way You Talk” turns out to be one of the album’s more understated moments; that yelp from unavoidable-in-2012 “Somebody That I Used to Know” saved for another time in favor of a soft repetition to match the gliding piano line.

Like Hold/Still, A Mineral Love also turns more subdued from “C’est La Vie” onward. Between the guitar instrumentals “Wren Tails” and “Saint Thomas” lands the final guest spot, this one from kindred spirit producer Wax Stag on “Gasoline & Mirrors”, two very different places in which to find your reflection. “Light Up the Sky” is a suitably sentimental slow jam to conclude the sentimental journey.


While Bibio and Suuns aren’t typically comparable, it is interesting to observe on the one hand an artist moving away from electronic music to find rejuvenation and serenity, and on the other a band moving toward it to explore menace and anxiety. Both cases highlight the quickly encroaching pervasiveness of technology in art and communication and the ways we adapt to it.


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