Volcano Suns
The Bright Orange Years
All Night Lotus Party


Listening to Merge’s reissues (the first time both have been available on CD, now after the format is on its deathbed) of the first two albums by the Volcano Suns, the band Mission of Burma drummer Peter Prescott formed after that seminal act’s initial dissolving, I’m reminded of a tape given to me in my high school by my college-prep reading teacher. On one side was Scrawl’s Smallmouth and on the other was the Suns’ Thing of Beauty. The tape was an eye- (and ear-) opener for two reasons. The first was realizing that there was a thriving independent music scene right in my backyard (Columbus), and the second, that there was amazing music beyond the British post-punk and American hardcore and college rock that I favored at the time. That 90-minute cassette was a proverbial key to a portion of the American underground that I had mostly been oblivious.

The Volcano Suns were representative of a segment of indie rock that straddled many traditions but fell neatly into none. Taking some cues from Burma, Prescott (principal songwriter in the Suns) also lifted some of the intensity of hardcore but insulated it with scruffy, wooly tonal qualities. The band’s idiosyncratic mix of off-kilter melodies and fierce playing juxtaposed nicely with Prescott’s whipsmart lyrics, which at turns could swing from being outwardly didactic to self-effacing.

As one can guess, though, such a blend was something of an acquired taste, and as these records show, the Suns rarely approached a song directly head-on. The Bright Orange Years, the band’s debut from 1985, originally released on Homestead, is the more cohesive of the two. Led off by “Jak,” a high-strung mixture of roughneck guitar jangle and sardonic wordplay, the record generally strikes a bristling pitch. Even the instrumental “Truth Is Stranger Than Fishing” seems a would-be college hit, if only. So too “Sea Cruise;” the first of the disc’s bonus tracks, taken from a 7-inch, is a suitably salty pop song with lines like “Why won’t the chicken cross the road, when there ain’t no other side?” played at breakneck speed.

That album’s follow-up from 1986 and the last before guitarist Jon Williams and bassist Jeff Weigand would jump ship, All Night Lotus Party, is slightly less coherent, but it’s hard not to see the sparks of ingenuity flying. “White Elephant” begins with a lazer-sharp riff, but turns into something more plodding. Similarly, “Blown Stack” repeatedly shift gears, going fifth to first to third and back to fifth again. “Engines” may be the strongest cut on the record, if only because it generally sticks to one thing for the majority of its two minutes, though “Village Idiot” is very enjoyable and more reminiscent of Bright Orange. The 10 bonus cuts are equally hit or miss, sometimes both hit and miss.

What the Volcano Suns were doing wasn’t exactly revelatory—after all, this was a three-piece working with drums, guitar, and bass. But it was the manner in which what they did was manifested that was unique, often defiantly so. And sometimes that’s enough of a revelation.
Stephen Slaybaugh