SUUNS' Ben Shemie Swaps Cold Synths for Warm Strings on 'Desiderata'

BY Bruno CoulombePublished Jul 27, 2022

Since 2017, SUUNS leader Ben Shemie has been forging his own solo path, building on his band's experimental rock approach but with a deeper interest in improvisation and textural research. On his third LP, Desiderata, he enlisted the help of the Molinari String Quartet to perfectly fuse his typical electronics and manipulated vocals with lush orchestral arrangements.

While SUUNS' music might be described as conceptual in spirit, Shemie has never been shy to use narrative concepts to bring order to his sonic universe, which often relies on single takes and no overdubs so any accidents that occur during recording are part of the experience. On 2019's A Skeleton, the songs told the story of a raceless and sexless character, while 2020's A Single Point of Light explored the concept of light: how it forms, how it moves, and how we perceive it. Desiderata, according to Shemie in a press release, "chronicles a wandering soul tangled in its own dark orbit, searching for meaning in a world of stardust and astral mirages," sharing its name with a street from William Gibson's classic 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer.

Despite the fantastical overtones, Desiderata is Shemie's most organic album yet, and his most humanized, in a sense. This is partly due to the presence of a string quartet whose sonorous warmth provides a welcomed counterpoint to the primitive synths and skeletal drums that typically characterize Shemie's work. "The Future Indefinite" is one of the album's standout tracks in this regard, building up from a simple electronic pulse to dramatic string interjections, with indiscernible haunting vocals.

The melodies are also more instantly recognizable. In the past, Shemie's manipulated voice has tended to obscure any possibility of a hummable tune, contributing to the cold aesthetic of his music. But the songs on Desiderata feel more composed, with carefully crafted melodies. The result is a greater emphasis on the lyrics and a more accessible listen in general. "The Mirror" is probably the most pop-like tune that Shemie has ever written, with undulating vocals and a clear verse-chorus structure.

Of course, there's still more than enough room for sonic experimentation. Tracks like "The Eye" and "The Passage" are more in line with Shemie's past work but, because they are interspersed with more straightforward tunes, the results don't feel overly cerebral. The use of old answering machine messages on "The Past Continuous" also creates an intriguing effect. Spoken in Québécois French, these messages are as banal as they can be — something about having to prepare lunch or not, or whether one has the right tool for some housework — but acquire an almost alien quality when paired with the ethereal backing track.

Shemie has described Desiderata as "a soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist." While this statement rings true (opener "The Departure" could have fit nicely on the score to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), it's also a bit of a disservice to the album. Because the narrative remains abstract, the songs on Desiderata stand perfectly well on their own, without any need of visual support. It's also a richly textured record, so much so that it's hard to believe it was recorded in two takes on the floor of the Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal.

Overall, Desiderata is not only Ben Shemie's most ambitious project but it's also his most accomplished and most accessible. 

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