[4 February 2009]
Looking at the bands that dominated 2008’s best-of lists, it’s amazing—and perhaps a little disheartening—how few of them followed the trail blazed by the ‘80s power trios of yore, especially considering how those bands have been belatedly feted and canonized: Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma (if you don’t count Martin Swope). At the risk of conjecture, the answer as to why these bands’ meat-and-potatoes indie rock sound isn’t ruling today’s underground, or whatever is left of it, probably lies at the intersection of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and Jeff Gordinier’s X Saves the World. Or maybe it’s just current musicians’ disillusionment over what the ‘80s Amerindie and ‘90s alternative explosion wrought; after all, Nickelback is only a few bands removed from the Pixies on the Rock Flow Chart.
Nevertheless, the march of time, and rock music, continues unabated, and if the ‘80s indie rockers’ style isn’t fashionable now, at least their albums are being lovingly curated and reissued. Given the recent reissues of seminal albums from Mission of Burma and almost-lost-to-history Big Dipper, it was only a matter of time before the band that served as a connection node between those bands—the power trio Volcano Suns—earned the deserved reissue treatment. (If you lost your line-up card: MoB drummer Peter Prescott formed the Volcano Suns with guitarist Gary Waleik during Burma’s break-up/long hiatus in 1983; Waleik left the Suns before 1985’s The Bright Orange Years was released and formed Big Dipper. Prescott could be indie rock’s Kevin Bacon.) Merge Records handled the Big Dipper reissue, Supercluster, and they’re at it again with the Suns: The Bright Orange Years and 1986’s All-Night Lotus Party. Wouldja believe that these reissues mark these records’ debut on CD? If you’ll recall the picture painted by Azerrad in Our Band of Homestead Records, the Suns’ ‘80s label, this belated digital debut seems a lot less shocking. Still, 24 years late is better than never, and props to Merge for sharing these records with the world.
The Volcano Suns line-up that recorded these albums—drummer/singer Prescott, guitarist Jon Williams and bassist Jeff Weigand—eschewed the tape-loop manipulation that served as MoB’s calling card and stuck with unabashed rock: countless reviews from the era invoke “hardcore-meets-heartland”, though we’re hardly talking about some Mellencamp-fronting-Black Flag Frankenstein here. Ultimately, that means heavy-but-not-breakneck riffs with plenty of punch from Williams and hollered-but-not-howled (there’s no better way to describe it) vocals from Prescott.
The Bright Orange Years, the Suns’ debut LP is the stronger of the two reissues, boasting arguably their best song (“Jak”) and a goodnatured, if paranoid, sense of humor—“It’s a balancing act / And I can’t balance / And I can’t act too well,” frets Prescott on “Balancing Act”. It’s noisy as all hell, but crisply produced; hooks, both guitar and vocal, are designed for maximum exposure. The reissue includes a handful of singles/b-sides/live tracks from the era, including the stunning “Sea Cruise”, the warped New Wave of “Greasy Spine” and a goofy live cover of Prince’s “1999”.
Where Bright Orange was noisy but bright, 1986’s All-Night Lotus Party took a darker, hazy turn, as reflected on the album cover, but it’s more stylistically varied, too: “Can” is a post-punk-meets-rockabilly romp; “Ride the Cog” flirts with Black Flaggy surf/hardcore; “Four Letters” and “Room With A View” could be proto-emo (a la Zen Arcade) with their anguished tales of lost love and social disconnect (and of course pained hollering from Prescott). Those heart-on-sleeve tracks still manage to jigsaw nicely with Lotus Party‘s cynical bruisers. On gleefully noisy opener “White Elephant”, Prescott sneers, “You shouldn’t worry too much about what’s in style,” while the strutting “Sounds Like Bucks” boasts one of the great lost ‘80s indie laments: “It’s impossible to get ahead with brains and soul and luck.”
Bright Orange Years holds a slight edge over Lotus Party as an album proper, but the latter wins the reissue bonus track matchup. Covers from the Beatles (“Polythene Pam”) and the Amboy Dukes (“Journey to the Center of the Mind”) make explicit the band’s psychedelic leanings (though the audio quality of the latter leaves a lot to be desired). “Jazz Odyssey” is a Minutemen-y jam that lets Williams showcase his chops, and the quartet of loud-quiet-loud “Time Off,” “Magic Sky,” the snarky “Curse of the Name” (“I was labeled like a new soup can / After Uncle Whatshisname”) and “Junior”, despite b-side status here, anchor an alternate universe’s Volcano Suns’ greatest-hits album.
Weigand and Williams hit the road after Lotus Party, leaving Prescott to soldier on through three more records with a revolving line-up of musicians (1988’s Farced, 1989’s Thing of Beauty and 1991’s Career in Rock), before finally hooking up with a reconstituted Mission of Burma in 2004, so it’s not like the Suns’ story doesn’t have a happy ending. Still, the Volcano Suns may be a footnote—if that—to all but the most serious students of 1980s indie, but these reissues stand as a fitting tribute-cum-bittersweet reminder of what could’ve been… and still could be.