cover art for SUSSAmbient country pioneers SUSS have weathered an emotional roller coaster since the unexpected passing of member Gary Leib in March 2021, right after they finished recording the Southwestern road trip EP Night Suite. That EP was released in October 2021, followed by another, Heat Haze, by the three surviving members in early 2022. Now the trio has released a third chapter, the Winter Was Hard EP, and all three are being released with a fourth side (the forthcoming EP Across the Horizon) on a self-titled two disc vinyl LP set on Northern Spy Records.

After the shimmering Southwestern soundscapes of Night Suite and Heat Haze, Bob Holmes, Pat Irwin and Jonathan Gregg take us into chillier territory on Winter Was Hard. And back out again. Two different versions of the title track bookend the six-track EP. The first “Winter Was Hard” features chilly piano arpeggios and chords behind sparse dronings of keyboards and ghostly synth moans, Gregg’s pedal steel barely showing up before the enervated fade-out. By contrast, the final track “”Winter Was Hard, Reprise” opens with warm pedal steel with fretboard strums replacing the piano; and even though some ghostly moans remain, they have a different, less haunted and haunting tone.

In between is another mini journey. “North Wind” at just over six minutes is the longest track on the entire LP, its layers of drones that overwhelm acoustic guitar arpeggios painting a sonic picture of winter’s interminable feel. “Linger” shimmers like the light above a frozen lake. “Everything Is So Beautiful” sighs with lessons learned, ghostly voices barely heard through a curtain but not understood. “The First Thaw” brings a hint of a promise of new hope, leading to that brief “Reprise” that ends this EP (or side of the LP).

The music on the final EP Across the Horizon (the fourth side of the LP) has a lightness of sound and clarity of production that’s immediately apparent. The drones are there, from synthesizers, pedal steel, Dobro, other guitars, keyboards, etc. But the sound overall is warmer, the atmosphere more open and clear — less shimmering heat haze, and definitely no cool piano chords. The piano that opens the album’s title track sets the tone with hopeful, major key upward arpeggios that are echoed on Dobro. On warm tracks like “Ranger” and “Shimmer (Reflection)” I’m instantly reminded of Calexico’s engrossing 2001 album AeroCalexico, one of my favorites of that decade. Lots of warm acoustic guitar strums, long, languid electric guitar twangs, pedal steel swooshes, and always a sense of forward motion. “That Good Night” puts a warm acoustic guitar out front, sketching bits of a folk song melody; this night is welcoming and hopeful, not an ordeal to be pushed through. The final track, “The Open Door,” is an open-ended composition anchored by a deep bass synth drone, a perfect way to fade out this project. An open door has a multitude of meanings, and like all of SUSS’s music, this gathering of sounds is subject to each listener’s interpretation. That’s the real beauty of ambient country.

(Northern Spy, 2022)

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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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