In Review: Alan Vega – Mutator
“How does the work with Suicide differ from what we heard today,” a presenter asks hurriedly on Spain’s premiere avant-garde TV-show, La Edad de Oro in 1983, “How does it differ, from the stuff you’re doing now at the live shows, or at clubs. Or is it all the same to you?” Alan Vega pauses a minute before responding, “It’s all the same… I’m Alan Vega…” In that sweaty interview off the backstreets of Malasaña, Vega probably thought he was being facetious, but his confession still rings true today – almost five years after his death - with the release of Mutator, his second posthumous album.
According to Vega’s partner, Liz Lamere, and close friend, Jared Artaud, who lovingly compiled the album for Sacred Bones Records, Mutator is taken from a lost bounty they call the ‘Vega vault’. Apparently, Lamere and Artaud are attempting to digitize the 'Vega vault', a cavernous collection of the late frontman’s writings, paintings, music and drawings of which Mutator is only the first instalment.
Taken from an explosive period of creativity between 1995 and 1996, Mutator is made up of eight songs, each ringing with the dishevelled experimentalism that made his duo, Suicide, so iconic to begin with. The second track on the album is simply named ‘Fist’, it kicks in and immediately you’re back there, falling through time to when you first heard Vega’s voice. Vega doesn’t really sing, he’s New York’s Mark E Smith, and hearing him yell at you from beyond the grave is disorienting; it absorbs you – it’s like you’re being haunted.
Alan Vega (real name, Alan Bermowitz) came from a Jewish Orthodox family in Bensonhurst. He was an odd character and wasn’t like the other punks of his time. He emerged out of the glam scene and, born in 1938, he was already nearing forty by the time CBGBs was established. Suicide – a collaboration between Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev – has always stood out in the landscape of popular counterculture. Vega was a painter, the prodigy of Swiss surrealist, Kurt Seligmann, and brought that sense of space into his songwriting. No one’s totally sure why he called the band Suicide, some say it’s taken from ‘Satan Suicide’, an issue off his favourite comic, Ghost Rider – also the title of one of band’s best-known singles. Others think it’s a reference to America, how the country is killing itself.
All this history swirls around in Mutator, which has an eerie spatial quality to it. The track ‘Filthy’ feels like wading through a sewer, hearing the sounds of the city with Vega telling you “it’s filthy!” over and over in the voice of a 90s Disney villain. ‘Nike Soldier’ spreads before you like a cursed cat-walk, complete with spitting neon strips and strobe lights.
For many of the tracks on Mutator, the music and the vocals move in separate directions, once the backing track is established Vega begins to cry out over the top of it. It’s the sound of different era’s colliding, the garbage pop-culture camp of the 1980s and 90s merging with the wide-eyed experimentalism of the 1960s. Vega lived through it all, and it’s all present in Mutator – in his ghost.
For some reason, I always forgive Vega of his pretentiousness, in a way that I wouldn’t for anyone else. However sarcastic, however knowing or acerbic, his musical wanderings always sound totally sincere – sometimes deeply moving. There’s something incredibly raw to Vega’s work and to Suicide also – which might have been why the duo managed to start a riot in Brussels opening for The Clash and Elvis Costello. You can listen to a taping of that gig online if you search for ‘23 Minutes Over Brussels’.
The last track on Mutator is called ‘Breathe’. It’s as close to calming as Vega gets. “Breathe!” he tells you in a strange impersonation of Johnny Bravo while modular synths churn in the background, “the show is now over… Breathe if nothing else” There’s an unstoppable haphazardness to ‘Breathe’, but also a sense of grounding. ‘Breathe’ is the slow acceptance of the last man left after the orgy. Like the rest of the album, the final song is a spectre, come from the dead, lost somewhere in the 1990s between 9/11 and the World Wide Web.
Mutator is out this Friday (23rd April) via Sacred Bones Records.