With Under a Billion Suns, Mudhoney has released its best album to date. The album explodes from the first track in and never lets up. 18 years into the game and the band has never sounded better.
Look no further than the record’s first song, “Where is the Future,” to find a group that somehow sounds more amped, charged and inspired than it ever has before.
“Where is the future that was promised us? I’m sick to death of this one,” sings Mark Arm. While guitarist Steve Turner unleashes blistering riffs drenched in fuzz, drummer Dan Peters rolls and fills like there’s no tomorrow and bassist Guy Maddison holds everything together, Arm explodes with a searing indictment of everything Bush.
But while Mudhoney has always rocked, what sets this track (and the entire record) apart from the atypical “rock record” is just how dense and melodic the arrangements are. Soulful, well-placed horns create counter-melodies that make the ears dart and perk up.
Thick organ chords and the occasional acoustic guitar quickly appear and then disappear, just as fast. And Arm’s vocals have veered away from a snarl-scream into – singing.
Moreover, there is a variety to Under a Billion Suns that has sadly been missing from nearly everything else rock-related that has been released in the last few years. Where “I Saw the Light” stomps and pulls in a blues-scorcher vamp, “Endless Yesterday” is a gorgeous, acoustic-driven roller that uses bells and a ride-snare combination on the drum kit to recall the “big ’60s” sound.
“We worked in three different studios on this one,” Arm said. “And I think that each producer just had their own approach to getting guitar sounds, vocals, drum sounds. So, we just let things unfold. We didn’t really talk beforehand about how we wanted things to sound. It just happened.”
It worked. Mudhoney has never before sounded this powerful, this essential.
And then there are the lyrics. Where Arm has, at times in the past, relied on irony or cynicism to get his point across, on Under a Billion Suns, he forsakes the approach and goes straight for the jugular.
How can one not think of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld as Arm shouts out, “Now I’m a dirty old man, with a hard-on for war”?
“It was important not to come out with a strident diatribe,” Arm explained. “‘Hard-on for War’ is based off of the idea of ‘why were so many people supporting the war?’ Most of the people pushing for it had never actually served in the military. And then there were kids from some bumfuck small town who were all gung-ho. So, writing about it is the only recourse I have. I pay attention to what’s going on. And it beats standing on some street corner, holding up a sign.”
Having in some ways turned into more of a studio band in the last few years – each member either works a day job or has kids – Mudhoney still finds time to bring it live.
“I wish we could go out more. But we just played South America in November and December,” Arm said. “It was a total blast. We were opening for Pearl Jam, who we’ve had a good, long relationship with. In the encore Steve and I would come out and cover ‘Kick Out the Jams’ with them-it was great.”
While so many musical trends have come and gone since the band first began releasing records nearly two decades ago (“They’re all rolling through my head right now as I picture them,” joked Arm) Mudhoney has persevered, stuck around. Listening to Under a Billion Suns is an instant reminder of what rock music can sound like, what it can do for the listener. Each track sounds like an explosion. And Mudhoney is lighting the fuse.
Under a Billion Suns will be released March 7 on Sub Pop.
Mudhoney will play a record-release party in Portland on March 18 at Dante’s.