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The Volcano Suns - The Bright Orange Years / All-Night Lotus Party

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Artist: The Volcano Suns

Album: The Bright Orange Years / All-Night Lotus Party

Label: Merge

Review date: Jan. 22, 2009

Very few bands get to kick off their careers with a song like “Jak.” The first track on the first album by the Volcano Suns begins with a menacing bass line and a howl, then moves on through a defiant chorus, threading the needle between hardcore punk and jangling melodies. The final chorus - “Jack of all trades and master of none/how can a person get anything done/If you can live with yourself/you can fool anyone” - is ferocious, it’s catchy and it’ll make you laugh if you let it – the holy trinity for this aggressive band of jesters.

The Bright Orange Years was released in 1985, just two years after Peter Prescott’s old band, Mission of Burma, had disintegrated. He had already discarded one line-up. Original guitarist Gary Waleik and bassist Steve Michener had left to form Big Dipper (though Michener gets a writing credit on Bright Orange Years’ “Balancing Act”). Jeff Weigand and Jon Williams had stepped in at bass and guitar respectively. Prescott wrote most of the songs, sang and pounded out his furious rhythms. A year later, the same group was back, again on Homestead Records, with All-Night Lotus Party, a harder, more blustery, noise inflected piece of work, where Prescott shared writing credits with his bandmates.

Although the Volcano Suns persisted into the mid-1990s, and even did a couple of reunion shows in 2005, the band never got the belated acclaim showered on other Homestead bands. Dinosaur Jr. got the deluxe reissue treatment in 2005. Sonic Youth hauls out one or two reissues every year. Even Big Dipper had its second chance at the mainstream last year, with the three-disc Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology. Still, the Volcano Suns’ first two albums remained hard to find. Released during the last days of vinyl-only, the two records were never pressed to CD until now.

The delay, I think, works in the band’s favor, since these reissues come with a certain amount of context. More people know what Mission of Burma and Big Dipper and Dinosaur Jr. sounded like in the early 1980s. The combination of hooks and ferocity is not so rare now – see Parts & Labor, Times New Viking, even Jay Reatard – as it might have been in the band’s heyday. Hardcore has been sliced and diced with pop in any number of ways, most recently by the L.A. contingent around No Age and Abe Vigoda. There is nothing especially shocking about any of this anymore.

And while maybe no longer revolutionary, the music holds up well. The Bright Orange Years, in particular, is studded with manic, melodic, blow-hard gems, not just “Jak,” but “The Mouth that Roared,” “Descent into Hell” and the instrumental “Truth is Stranger than Fishing.” “Cornfield” slouches and stutters through mine-strewn rhythms, everything coming together in a unison-sung chorus of “I should have pulled you out of the way.” It’s difficult and accessible, hard-edged and tuneful at the same time.

All-Night Lotus Party is harsher, more distorted and more aggressively goofy. Its lead track, “White Elephant,” begins in a machine-gun rain of guitar notes, and an undercurrent of noise threads through its most anthemic and inviting melodies. The clank of bass intimidates even when the singing turns sweet. “Engines,” later on, is a full-on assault, all metallic chug and clangor, and “Room with a View,” the album’s prettiest, most bucolic cut, has its submerged dissonances. “Village Idiot” is all mocking, sardonic, chip-on-your-shoulder bluster, Prescott’s voice fraying to a yelp and rising to a coo as he baits an invisible audience.

Both albums have extensive bonus materials, some of the cuts more “bonus” than others. Bright Orange Years has nine additional tracks, singles “Sea Cruise,” “Greasy Spoon” and “Tree Stump” and a couple of contemporary radio sessions. I’d only pay extra, though, for “1999,” the Prince song, recorded live at WBER in the 1980s. It’s so fierce and abrasive that you may not recognize the original until you’ve heard it a couple of times. When you do, whenever it is, you’ll laugh.

All-Night Lotus Party also has some interesting covers – the Beatles “Poylthene Pam” and the Amboy Dukes chestnut “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” with Prescott channeling Ted Nugent. There is a funny song called “Bilbo Baggins” and a stomping version of ‘Junior.” But the album also includes some indulgences, the goofy tape-manipulated “Walk Around Dub” (again recorded at WBER in the 1980s), and (especially) the eight-plus minutes of thunderstorms titled “superhappyfunmysterybonustrack2009.”

If not all the bonus material is revelatory, the majority is enjoyable. And more important, the main albums are readily available again, in all their roughed up, belligerently tuneful glory. The Volcano Suns are the missing link between 1980s poker-faced Burma and the latter-day more playful version. (If nothing else, these two albums explain where the prankster energies of OnOFFOn’s “The Enthusiast” came from.) And more than that, they stand on their own raucous terms as a link between post-punk, arena anthems and noise rock. A ’jak’ of all trades.

By Jennifer Kelly

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