Supersystem Breaks Up
Supersystem broke up last week, and nobody noticed. I'm not even sure why the news bothers me; the chances of this band ever releasing another great record were pretty much zero, and I'm all for bands hanging it up soon after releasing their definitive statements. Supersystem existed in one form or another for about ten years, and they released exactly one album that I'd never consider selling back to a used-CD store. I guess the thing that really bothers me is that they spent so long making shitty postpunk that hardly anyone paid attention when they finally got around to releasing their one utterly amazing album. After that album, they went back to making shitty postpunk, and they got the exact same response as they got when their one great album came out. So the entire history of Supersystem feels to me like a rebuke of the idea of an indie-rock meritocracy. It obviously doesn't work this way and probably never did, but I always liked the idea that indie-rock, as a culture, nurtured talented art-damaged bands and helped them pay their bills until they finally figured out their strengths and honed their styles and released their classics, whereupon the entire scene picked up on it and celebrated them like conquering heroes. Every once in a while, it does work that way; TV on the Radio are on the cover of this month's Spin, for instance. But TV on the Radio are the exceptions. There are just so many bands and scenes and genre-fads that nobody can ever really hope to stay on top of everything, and so great stuff and horrible stuff ends up flying out into a vacuum, and great bands live their life-cycles out, breaking up before they've ever been able to accumulate enough of an audience to quite their day jobs. Supersytem made one great album and a whole pile of terrible albums, and they had basically the same audience the entire time. The system doesn't work.
Supersystem started out as the DC postpunk trio El Guapo, and I have really vague and possibly inaccurate memories of seeing them play an illegal show in a Baltimore storefront opening for Roads to Space Travel or someone like that when I was in high school. If I'm not totally making this up, they were playing instrumental surf-guitar stuff back then, and I didn't see a whole lot of point in filing anything more than that away. El Guapo lingered around the fringes of the DC indie-rock scene for years and years, getting progressively artier and synthier and more self-indulgent. People hated them. I hated them. And still they kept putting out records and jumping on bills with better bands. I vividly remember one set they played at the Black Cat in DC; it was a benefit for the medical bills of the girl from Blonde Redhead after she fell off a horse and fucked her neck all up. Blonde Redhead and Ted Leo both played sharp and cathartic sets, and Joe Lally from Fugazi made an unannounced appearance, playing a couple of songs of face-melting psyche-metal. But then there was El Guapo, farting around with some old keyboards and generally sucking all the excitement out of the room before the show had a chance to start. El Guapo ended up releasing four albums, including two on Dischord, which is pretty much the height of success for a DC postpunk band. I'm pretty sure I heard one of those Dischord albums and felt pretty safe ignoring all the band's other albums. But then something funny happened. The band became a quartet after hiring the drummer from DC spaz-metal mathematicians Orthrelm. They changed their name to Supersystem for some reason. They left Dischord and signed with Touch & Go. And they released Always Never Again, the dancepunk masterwork that I would've thought these guys capable of making.
Always Never Again didn't do away with El Guapo's artier tendencies; it just rechanneled them into something furiously and unrepentantly dance-based. I don't know how much the Orthrelm guy had to do with this, but the band suddenly discovered rhythm. They kept their doomy pretentious lyricism and analog-synth blares and sputtering uptight white-guy vocals. But they sublimated that stuff hidden into lockstep robo-groove dancehall handclaps and orientalist disco guitar-lines and Afrobeat horn-honks. The songs piled up elements precariously, pulling them wholesale from every source they could find, but they kept everything working in service of the tracks' central grooves. And so the songs ended up extreme both in their apocalyptic stiffness and their wriggly pleasure-centric danceability. And the band's hardcore roots stay visible in the breakneck tempos and the bloodcurdling screams and the occasional flareup of scrabbling guitars. It's a paradoxical piece of work, something like (music-critic sensationalism alert) Giorgio Moroder producing Born Against. Always Never Again didn't have a whole lot of musical precedents, but the closest parallel I could draw would probably be the Rapture's Echoes, both in its playfully squelchy beats and its pervasively hungover darkness. That meant that Always Never Again was a dancepunk record that came out in 2005, and nobody was really trying to fuck with dancepunk in 2005; indie-rock had moved on to freak-folk or whatever. And El Guapo hadn't exactly built up a ton of goodwill. So Always Never Again came and went without a whole lot of noise. It ended up on a couple of critics' year-end lists, and that was it.
Earlier this year, I was pretty amped to get an advance copy of A Million Microphones, the follow-up that came barely a year after Always Never Again. But A Million Microphones is a depressingly flat and empty record. It keeps the same scuzzy dancepunk vibe of its predecessor, but the rhythms are turgid and slow, and the band's dance influences feel unfinished and unrealized. Instead, they put all their emphasis on stupid psychedelic lyrical concepts about teenagers doing mushrooms or whatever. A Million Microphones isn't necessarily a terrible album; it's probably better than anything El Guapo ever did. But it's still a boring and inadequate follow-up to a great piece of work. And it got roughly the same mixed reviews and limited notice that Always Never Again had. Supersystem had gone through a shocking and precipitous dive in quality, and it made absolutely no difference in the end. It didn't make them any more or less popular. It probably made sense for the band to break up after that, and they announced that breakup last week. All the band's members have side projects in various stages of realization, and I feel pretty comfortable that nobody involved will ever make an album as great as Always Never Again. (I caught Shy Child, Pete Cafarella's new dancepunk two-piece, as they played a mediocre CMJ set without realizing that they had anything to do with Supersystem.) Supersystem themselves were never a great live show, so that's no huge loss. The world will be just fine without Supersystem. But I'm still sort of bummed that this band never got the moment in the sun that it deserved, however briefly. Great albums come and go, and the world just keeps moving.
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