The Witness is a restrained record that overwhelmingly feels like a concentration of who and what the band has always been at its core. It is Suuns are their most satiny.
Suuns singer/guitarist Ben Shemie described the band’s 2018 album, Felt, as having “swagger.” If that’s the case, then their new record, The Witness, is best characterized as having soul. Now down to a trio of Shemie, Joe Yarmush, and Liam O’Neill after Max Henry’s departure as a full-time member, Suuns strip away much of their signature angular rock styling and tendency to get bombastic to craft a muted yet multi-sensory album that’s triggering all kinds of ASMR for me. Instead of Suuns’ usual jagged and oblique arrangements, these new songs are supple and soft. The Witness is a restrained record that overwhelmingly feels like a concentration of who and what the band has always been at its core. It is Suuns are their most satiny.
Not surprisingly, the pandemic had a part to play in how the album turned out. The band self-recorded and self-produced The Witness over the course of last year, a long-distance process now that Shemie lives in Paris and Yarmush and O’Neill are in Canada. Henry supported the band as a studio collaborator, helping to shape “Witness Protection” into a slinky shiny dance tune that sounds as if it’s being played in an empty disco. Elements of contemporary jazz have always been foundational to Suuns’ music (as evidenced in jazz trio Misc’s cover of Felt song “ALT-X” on their last album), but The Witness brings their jazz leanings closer to the surface. “Clarity” feels steeped in improv, experimentation, and free-form structure. Much of the album feels incomplete, which is not to say that it’s unfinished. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are additional layers to songs like “Third Stream” and “The Fix” that got left off the final mix, in an attempt to have the music “settle down” as Yarmush described in a press release recently.
While “The Fix” starts subtly, Suuns can’t help but make it sparkle. Dark undertones, a deep bass rhythm, and Shemie’s trademark barely-above-a-whisper singing style all come together for The Witness’s funkiest workout before an abrupt stop leaves the song resonating in the silence that remains. “Go To My Head” is as close as Suuns will ever get to writing a ballad. Its meditative melody set to a slow and steady rhythm nods to the Style Council’s “Long Hot Summer.” But even this pseudo-ballad gets busted and bruised in Suuns hands, bending and pitch-shifting Shemie’s vocals before he gets too sentimental.
The Witness is an under-stated over-deliverer. It’s a record that sashays, swings, and prominently wears its soul in the subtleties and restrained manner in which Suuns craft their music. It’s an exercise in delayed gratification that finds them doing what they innately do best: fearlessly following their instincts to a singular sound that can only come from Suuns.