Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Did SSION Just Quietly Release the Most Astonishing Album of the Summer?

Did SSION Just Quietly Release the Most Astonishing Album of the Summer?
11 May

If I told you that today, a very important and monumental record has just been released, you might assume I’m speaking about Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. After all, we’ve been building up to it for weeks. Yesterday, we published a guide to their entire discography. The day before, we called them The Biggest Band in Britain. We even spoke to a variety of animal experts to ascertain what an ‘arctic monkey’ is. But amid all of this hype about four greasy dudes from Sheffield, there has been another, quieter album gearing up to be unveiled. And at the risk of being ex-communicated by the people I work with, this one is, I think, altogether more exciting. I’m speaking about SSION—the project spearheaded by 37-year-old cult hero and New Yorker Cody Critcheloe—who today returned after seven years with O.

This will be his third official album, although he’s released so many cassette tapes and odd mixes. It’s more accurate to say he’s slowly formulated his own universe. Over the past two decades, he has amassed a sprawling body of work that span several disciplines—music, painting and film—and trying to pin his art together is like trying to shove mist into a bottle. He created the iconic cover for Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever To Tell. He toured with Gossip. He directed multiple music videos, including but not limited to Peaches’ “Billionaire,” Robyn’s “Love is Free,” and Perfume Genius’ “Queen.” And then there’s his own music; a technicolor mishmash of the queer/punk/art club scene he’s always been tied to. His sound is best described in a recent New York Times interview: “At once dance-pop and classic rock, art and trash, all spun around the breathy vocals of Mr. Critcheloe, which can paint him as the lost love child of Prince and the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant.”

But let’s talk about today’s album, which is a masterclass in (well, a lot of things) but most obviously the art of collaboration. At just 12 tracks long, it contains features from Ariel Pink, Devendra Banhart, MNDR, Ian Isiah, Contessa Stuto, Jennifer Herrema. At one point, Sky Ferreira and Patty Schemel from Hole team up for what can only be described as a pure slice of digital hardcore madness. The whole thing was co-produced by Sam Mehran from Test Icicles and Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy. Roisin Murphy even shows up to do some spoken word (yes). It’s no exaggeration to say that is a historical grouping of names, particularly for those well versed in the wild strands of queer culture, made up of ideas that can feel arbitrary to an outsider written down, but make perfect sense in action. It’s spirit is perhaps best summed up by the fact SSION’s name is knowingly stylised in the same font as Oasis (the most laddy band there is) and the album is streaming on his Bandcamp (the 2018 version of handing out a free CD).

And then there’s the sound of it, which would standalone as a glorious piece of work even without the added intrigue of so many recognizable creatives. As with anything SSION does, it’s hard to pin down, as it is as much Sonic Youth as it is Kylie Minogue. But at the base of every song is a disco-pop hook, which is then scratched up or offset by a punk guitar riff, some demented vocals or a meandering vocal. In “Heaven is My Thing Again,” for instance, we are given at what first sounds like a strung-out Scissor Sisters, but on closer inspection contains the odd, distorted scream or drawling LA voice-over. It’s as if he’s trying to create pop, but he’s too freaky for it—and what happens instead is much better. “There’s always a push and pull between his desire for super-clean, accessible, straightforward production and this scuzzy, blown-out noise,” co-producer Weiss recently told Dazed. “Cody is always drawn to wretched sounds and feedback, as much as he loves an incredible pop hook and 4/4 rhythm. He has a rocker spirit, and since rock has been dead for a while, we need to find new ways to channel that spirit into something people—especially queer people—can relate to right now.”

When we consider the genius of this album—and it is genius, I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic—it’s relevant to note that SSION is first and foremost an artist, rather than a straight-up musician. Every song on this record is accompanied by multiple weird and wonderful paintings, each sitting somewhere between the brash, punk comic aesthetic of the early Yeah Yeah Yeah’s artwork that Cody created and the trashy neon style of John Waters’ filmography. “Mark & Me”—a noisy, absurdist track that sits in the middle—even comes with two winking paintings of him and Marc Jacobs, one in which he’s wearing a t shirt that says, “I fuck on the first date.” It feels like a throwback to fan faction in the style of DIY music zines, another addition to his haywire collage of various mediums. As Mykki Blanco put it to Dazed: “From his albums to his live shows, paintings and drawings, he has an Elon Musk level of creative energy and dynamics.”

There is every chance you’ve never heard of SSION. He is in some ways lesser known than many of the artists he formatively influenced. A lot of people are more likely to have banged out Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” for example, than SSION’s 1999 self-released cassette tape “Fucked Into Oblivion.” But among those who have heard of him, he has built a steady cult following, and a collection of work to become obsessed with. I can’t imagine that SSION—who is glossy and grotesque, sludgy and bright, trashy and iconoclastic—could amass any kind of casual listener or observer. So wherever you sit, O—named after ‘optimism’, shaped like a hug—will either be an invitation to new kind of party, the kind you’ve wanted to go to years, or yet another addition to a world you’ve already got lost in.

You can follow Daisy on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.


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