The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
Alan Vega excelled at provocation. In the early ’70s, as part of the groundbreaking electro-punk duo Suicide, Vega and bandmate Martin Rev routinely antagonized audiences to the point of violence with twitchy, unsettling music that paired Vega’s demented rockabilly mumbles and whoops with Rev’s minimalist vamps on a cheap synthesizer augmented with effects pedals. They pushed their confrontational aesthetic to the point where Vega would often appear onstage swinging an eight-foot length of motorcycle chain, or cut his own face with shards from broken bottles.
Though physical altercations with concert crowds ebbed over the years, Vega retained a sense of restless intensity up until his death in 2016, at 78. Along with occasional Suicide albums, he kept busy with solo efforts and joint projects, as well as more studio experiments than he was able to release during his lifetime. Mutator was one of them. Recorded with his collaborator (and wife) Liz Lamere in 1995-96, this “lost album” seethes with the influence of New York City in the ’90s, conveying the clamor of life in a city that hadn’t yet fully shed the gritty, dangerous aura that had defined it since, well, Suicide’s heyday. In other words, Mutator is peak Vega.
The eight tracks here were intended as experiments in sound, and Vega shows almost no interest in conventional song structures or, for that matter, melody. Instead, he focuses on atmospherics, creating moods that are frequently disjointed, sometimes oppressive and often deeply charismatic. Synthesizers and drum machines typically provide instrumental accompaniment, alternately whirring in the background or gnashing right up front like some infernal machine. Opening track “Trinity” could double as performance art, as Vega engages in an ominous call-and-response over bleak synths topped with something akin to a quavering theremin. His vocals consist entirely of repeating the title of the song in a deep voice verging on horror, and every time he says “trinity,” a female voice (Lamere’s, one imagines) moans “mother,” “daughter” or “holy ghost.” Depending on your family, it’s probably not the right choice for Christmas Eve.
There are other religious references elsewhere, including the title of “Psalm 68,” where Vega mutters unintelligibly through an opaque curtain of synthesizers and rhythm that first evokes a record skipping and evolves into a steady, keening drone. Yet Mutator is not a celebration of the sacred so much as an exploration of the profane, or at least the unconsecrated, as Vega makes clear on the tracks where his vocals are more discernible. “It’s filthy / Stainless / It’s faceless,” he talk-sings on “Filthy,” sounding gleeful about it over stuttering machine-gun accompaniment. He and Lamere take a similar dynamic approach to “Fist,” where a pounding industrial beat hammers along with synths that sound like a souped-up angle grinder while Vega delivers vocals through a thick fog of reverb.
Mutator is the first in a planned series of “Vega Vault” archival releases. Vega usually spent several days a week in the studio between 1988-2015, and Lamere says there’s more unreleased material than she has so far been able to catalog. There’s no telling, then, just how much more music is to come. No matter the amount, Mutator sets a high bar for whatever is to follow.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.