Over the past several releases, New York-based White Suns have crafted an abrasive and esoteric noise rock formula. Rather than operating in the genre’s standard fare of “noisy rock,” the trio of Kevin Barry (vocals, guitar), Rick Visser (guitar, electronics) and Dana Matthiesen (drums, electronics) have opted instead for a seamless marriage of noise and experimental rock, with an elevated mood of unease conjured by Barry’s cryptic lyricism and spoken word delivery. It’s a peculiar formula which unfolded spectacularly across nine disorienting tracks on the band’s previous effort, Totem (2014). The album presented an abundance of these unhinged noise rock bastardizations accented by extended passages of dark ambiance and industrial noise that created a painful degree of suspenseful dread before the band finally released the listener back into its chaos-ridden assault. It’s the styling of these moments that composes the bulk of Psychic Drift, a four-track bludgeoning anchored by a nightmarish lyrical* journey as disturbing as the music that engulfs Barry’s narration.
From the immediate assault of “Korea” through the fading exit of “Medicine Walk,” Visser’s absence on the album is abundantly clear. Barry announced without explanation that the record was recorded by him and Matthiesen alone, though the lack of discernible guitar parts isn’t a detriment to the album. To the contrary, the of abandonment of blatant six-string fare as well as Mattheisen’s percussive accompaniment clearly allowed him and Barry to flesh out their electronic compositions and mold a narrative alluded to by the opening track’s title. Through soundscapes and prose, the duo seem to unfold the treacherous journey of a soldier in the Korean War separated from his unit. It’s unclear whether he’s a deserter or alone involuntarily, but regardless, the album starts with his panicked observations about the dangers surrounding him and the perils that lie between him and the safety of his home base.
As “Korea” opens, the narrator reveals that he’s “wandering under a foreign highway; searching for a place to sleep / Ladders invite me up to holes in the concrete / The static roar of cars overhead is an abyss my mind must avoid.” Whatever events preceded this moment have caused the narrator to flee to the sewers below a Korean city that runs below a highway, and the manholes above him pour humanity over him as he quivers in fear. The music accentuates this imagery; heavily distorted and elongated sounds resembling car horns, helicopters and general running machinery pulsate throughout the track, resembling vehicles which the narrator is unsure belong to friends or adversaries. In the background, chatter and radio transmissions blur beneath the cacophony, and screams resembling those of Margaret Chardiet (Pharmakon) pierce through the swirl of mechanical swirl. The message is clear: war, and death, surround the narrator regardless of where he tries to hide.
Perhaps with this fact in mind, he escapes to a nearby river, at which point the music quiets to pulsing electronics in a dark atmosphere. He looks out, and sees that “a man holds a fishing pole out over a stinking river and stares silently as I pass / He sits among empty buckets as if he has never moved / His face is like a theater mask with nothing behind.” Residue of war has likely polluted the river, and the toll of destruction brought upon the fisherman’s life and homeland have drained his spirits and removed any trace of joy from his face. Beginning to feel the desolation that this fisherman has become accustomed to, the narrator scans the scenery to find his base camp on the horizon. He places “hope in vacant towers, huddled together, floodlit from below.” He determines he’ll wait until morning to make the trek back, and finds a filthy spot by the river to hide and attempt to quell his terror throughout the night. Surrounded by leftovers from war, he laments that “I can’t sleep on this trash / No one knows I’m gone / Drift downstream / I’m nauseous and blind / No one knows I’m gone.” With these cries of despair, the soundscape swells with an intense build of noise and static, matching Barry’s increasingly panicked narration.
On “Pilgrim,” the plot shifts from the narrator watching trash float downstream to instead finding himself drifting along with the water. He is “washed up on the shore of civilization / Waves break across my chest,” realizing that “I’ve brought nothing to an empty place.” A persistent, echoing metallic strike ricochets off “Concrete traced by stunted vegetation,” which is held up by the suffocating rumblings of machinery in the distance. The narrator makes a a blunt observation: “The ruins hold no mystery / There are no echos here.” The sensation of death crushes him, and he knows that the “titanic weight of time is visible to the naked eye”—more bluntly, there’s very little chance he’ll avoid the fate met by the people who once lived here. Yet, even so, he finds a shimmer of hope. The murk of dense electronics eases slightly, an he sees “a scene that I can tease apart and step through.”
And thus, he ventures on, into “A Year Without Summer.” The narrator tells himself to “climb into your bed of golden tent leaves / Lay your head down in a hole in the ground,” all amid an ominous air of darkness. This soundscape breaks with the sound of muffled gunshots heard in the distance. Barry distorts his voice into the sound of an all-consuming siren heard in the distance, sounding the alarm for battle. Noise mimicking explosions, metal screeches and more gunshots command the track, and when all hope seems lost, the narrator reveals “the answer emerges from black mud and bones at the bottom of a well.” As the battle unfolds around him, the narrator drops into rain and blood soaked mud as remains surround him, all while he hopes to delay joining the death toll for a bit longer.
By the time “Medicine Walk” brings on the finale of our narrative,” Barry’s delivery peaks with fear and trembling. He shrieks terse phrases of terror, unveiling his panicked attempts to “cross the creek” before noticing trucks and other signs of the enemy closing in. Then, the far off roar of a plane engine draws in. The narrator admits “my voice dies ten feet from my mouth,” as he sees “a predatory form enters my gaze.” Finally, he asks aloud for someone to “end this nightmare,” and soon after, the sound of the plane begins to slowly fade out. Wading water and a thudding beat become more muffled as the noise of the engine subsides, and finally, the entire scene fades into silence.
As “Medicine Walk” concludes, it’s truly awing to reflect on what Barry and Matthiesen have accomplished on Psychic Drift. While the ethos of White Suns has always been fearless exploration of noise and its offshoots, this four-part concept album transcends anything that precedes it in either the band’s discography or their genre in general. By using Barry’s exceptional delivery and poetry to contextualize intrinsically impressive electronics, the duo fully engrosses the listener in their carefully crafted narrative rather than simply alluding to it with just sonic elements. There’s nothing wrong with this simpler approach, of course; electronic artists on the darker end of the spectrum aptly create music fit to soundtrack a chilling horror film. But with Psychic Drift, White Suns have surpassed this approach to create the sonic and lyrical embodiment of a mortifying psychological thriller rooted in true human experiences, landing in a sonic landscape rife with the dregs of the human psyche when pushed beyond the limits of what it can tolerate.
Psychic Drift is available June 16 via The Flenser and can be pre-ordered here.
*Author’s Note: The promo we received for this album didn’t contain official lyrics. All quotes cited in this review were transcribed by ear as accurately as possible and carefully analyzed.