SUSS’ Birds & Beasts

cover, Birds & BeastsAs much as it has depicted desert landscapes, the music of SUSS has essentially been inward looking. Reflective of the effects of those landscapes on the artist’s eye and ear. With their fifth full length release, the ambient country masters turn outward to revel, in their subtle, introspective way, on the creatures that populate the world around them. Thus the title Birds & Beasts. As it always does for the instrumental “ambient country” trio, the sounds themselves dictated the album’s themes.

“For once, it looked like the stark, vast landscapes that we had been painting before were starting to be populated with a bit of creature warmth,” says Bob Holmes, who plays guitar, mandolin, harmonica and violin on the album. But, he notes, “This is not Garden of Eden kind of stuff.”

Lovers of pedal steel guitar will find much to enthrall them here, as always, in the playing of Jonathan Gregg. Much of what you’ll hear on Birds & Beasts is the languid tones of that pedal steel stretching and floating over the ambient bed of sound laid down by Holmes and Pat Irwin on keyboards, electric guitar and resonator guitar.

After several years of listening to the music of SUSS I wasn’t prepared for the sense of warmth and solace that enveloped me the first time I heard “Overstory,” the album’s third track and third single. It’s an apt title for this piece of music (overstory is “the top foliage from multiple trees that combine to create an overhang or canopy under which people can walk or sit,” says Merriam Webster), which like most of these tracks has just a few elements. It somehow manages a sense of openness at the same time as it conveys enveloping protection.

Such comforting vibes are the album’s theme, to me. “Flight” could be about fleeing danger, but instead it conveys the joy of soaring and drifting on a lazy breeze, the pedal steel and baritone guitar lines twining around each other in languid sworls. The sole exception is “Prey,” which definitely has a sense of danger and foreboding, but still with a sense of watchfulness rather than panic.

The album builds up to the final two tracks, each of them marvels of ambience at 10 minutes apiece. “Beasts” begs a re-examination of our feelings toward those we’d label beasts. And “Migration” is the sole work here that goes back a number of years and features founding member Gary Leib, who died in 2021. It’s the most rythmic track, building its long steel guitar lines around looped tick-tock eighth notes on guitar and banjo. “We always loved the track but we never found the right fit for it,” says Holmes. “However, as we were making what was to become Birds & Beasts, it became obvious that the track was just waiting for us to come around to its way of thinking. You just need to listen to the music closely to hear what it’s always been trying to tell you.”

(Northern Spy, 2024)

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Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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