SUSS’s Heat Haze

cover art for Heat HazeHeat Haze picks up where the New York ambient country band SUSS left off with their previous offering, Night Suite left off. That five-song EP, you’ll recall, dropped unexpectedly in October 2021. It took the listener on a nighttime journey through America’s desert southwest, destination five iconic towns along the fabled Route 66. Now we’re facing a new day in the desert, the heat haze rising off the parched landscape, depicted cinematically in the way SUSS has pioneered.

SUSS’s three surviving members Bob Holmes (baritone and acoustic guitars, mandolin, harmonica), Pat Irwin (National resonator guitar, harmonium), and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel guitar), finished these tracks with Gary Leib, who tied the whole sound together with various synthesizers and effects and loops, shortly before his unexpected death in 2020. Heat Haze is another tribute in part to Leib, and his contributions clearly are the glue bringing these tracks together.

I was immediately drawn to the sound of SUSS when I came upon it on their Bandcamp site. To me, it echoes and carries on the sounds pioneered by Bill Elm, Naim Amor and Co., in the 90s Tucson band Friends of Dean Martinez. SUSS takes the classic western music sounds of baritone guitar, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, resonator, and occasional harmonica, and lays them over an evocative multi-layered electronic drone.

It opens with the title track “Heat Haze,” and true to its title you can almost see the heat rising off the desert landscape.

On “Shimmer” Holmes’s metronomically plucked mandolin (probably on a loop) sets an air of mild tension or edgy expectation. Holmes’s folksy acoustic guitar lick gives “Grace” an actual song-like structure – perhaps the most songlike of just about any of SUSS’s recordings. The song has a bit of a mathematical scheme to it – the acoustic guitar riff is played in plucked 16th notes, and Gregg lays down long whole notes on his pedal steel, while the baritone guitar splits the difference with dropped-in quarter notes – but the result is anything but mechanical. One of my favorite tracks of the year so far! Here’s what Holmes said about it in a post to the SUSS Bandcamp community:

SUSS has spent a lot of the last couple of years living out of suitcases, moving from place to place. Grace, the third cut on our latest EP Heat Haze does a good job of capturing that feeling of being lost in America.

“Train” on the other hand I actually find annoying, or at least my tinnitus-plagued ears do. I love the heavily reverbed pedal steel treatment juxtaposed against the plodding baritone guitar, but way out front in the mix is a mid-range mechanical drone sound that my ears find grating. It starts quietly and grows in volume until it nearly blots out the rest of the sounds. The final track “Pine” is a nice antidote. You can practically smell the scent of the pines enveloping your senses as the morning heat climbs. Behind the usual guitars is a synthesized brass section of trombone and trumpets, which are paired in a slowly growing sound that also becomes nearly all enveloping, with higher pitched bleeps and whirs swirling around it.

All in all, it’s another engrossing sonic adventure from SUSS.

(Northern Spy, 2022)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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