Alan Vega – ‘Mutator’ review: uncompromising art from an old master

The late Suicide pioneer's wife and collaborator Liz Lamere has unlocked the Vega Vault, spewing forth more NYC gutter rock and apocalyptic proclamations

The shock of the new often blinds us for decades, and so it was with Suicide. So joltingly pivotal and influential was their self-titled 1977 debut album – melting Can’s krautrock into minimalist NYC art rock to become a cornerstone of post-punk, industrial rock and synth-pop – that their subsequent albums, and singer Alan Vega’s plentiful solo work, were somewhat lost in the blaze of noise it inspired. Indeed, Vega was particularly productive alongside his wife and collaborator Liz Lamere in the ‘90s, when he raced so frantically with ideas and inspirations that he’d already moved on to another project before ‘Mutator’, recorded at his NYC studio between 1995 and ’96, was even finished.

Like Prince with his ‘purple vault’, Alan kept his own Vega Vault for just such unused material. And it was here in 2019, three years after Vega’s death, that Lamere and collaborator Jared Artaud discovered the album and prepped it as the first of a series of posthumous archival releases. Stripped of the sonic and thematic surroundings in which it was made – although it undoubtedly remains in step with the ‘90s music that Vega inspired, with its shoegazing atmospheres and darktronic menace – it feels a little adrift and out of context: there’s no telling what he’s railing against with proclamations like “power to the innocents… destroy the interrogators… destroy the mutilators” on the dark-side-of-the-‘80s track ‘Fist’. But then, Vega’s otherworldly, narcotic, vaguely sacrilegious New York gutter music has always found its strength in intangible enigma.

Which is another way of saying you don’t come to an Alan Vega album for the choruses. Created by Vega and Lamere manipulating raw electronic sounds into synthetic drones, engrossing warps and ghost images of electro-pop, with Vega intones quasi-mystically over the top like an evil Elvis, it’s a record out to unsettle and infiltrate rather than entertain. Opener ‘Trinity’ almost acts as a test on entry for the listener – if you like listening to a menacing melange of ghostly screams, echoing synths and cries of “mother, daughter, holy ghost!”, you’ve come to the right sacrificial basement.

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Once you’re inside, things lighten – slightly. ‘Muscles’, populated by dealers, monsters and “masters of disasters”, comes across as a creepy kissing cousin to Leftfield and Nine Inch Nails. ‘Filthy’ is, as the name suggests, a grind of gruesome electro rock. ‘Nike Soldier’, the one really underwhelming track on the record, plods along like a warbot that can’t find the missile base it’s supposed to blow up. And there are moments of skewed beauty too: ‘Breathe’ is built on sunburst synths; ‘Psalm 68’ is all mechanical meanders and dreamscapes, like the internal workings of a mildly deranged AI. Best – and most uncharacteristic – of all, ‘Samurai’ drifts gorgeously by on sumptuous shoegaze shimmers as Vega rambles randomly about rainbows, ancient Magi, war and missing girls (“who’s been killing them?”).

Vega’s visions have come of age again in the post-indie deconstructions of 2021, and ‘Mutator’ might well find favour with fans of his distant descendants like Squid, Perfume Genius, Sleaford Mods and Black Midi. A quarter of a century on, this lost rumble from post-punk vaults finds new context, as a lesson in uncompromising art from an old master.

Details

Release date: April 23

Record label: Sacred Bones Records

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