“Four Letters” from the album All Night Lotus Party
“Silvertone” from the album The Bright Orange Years
It’s a good thing North Carolina indie label Merge Records put the time and effort into re-releasing the Volcano Suns’ first two powerhouse albums; my well-worn copies of 1985’s The Bright Orange Years and 1986’s All Night Lotus Party are almost too scratchy to enjoy.
Led by former Mission of Burma drummer/vocalist Peter Prescott, the Volcano Suns were prolific, clumsily poetic, joyfully unrefined, full of beery enthusiasm and cynical wit. The band was probably one of the more obscure acts from the mid and late ’80s. Unfortunately, most who gave a damn about rock music during the Suns’ heyday (and in the years after) never even heard of them. Luckily, the select few tuned into the Suns sound — dedicated Burma fans, garage band colleagues, university bohemians, and amateur music critics — loved the band wholeheartedly.
The Volcano Suns story starts with Mission of Burma, one of Boston’s more significant and short-lived punk rock bands. Burma’s musical accomplishments between 1979 and 1983 were mighty. The trio of Prescott, guitarist Roger Miller, and bassist Clint Conley greatly influenced much of the American indie-rock underground. Burma’s aggressive sound came out of the ’70s underground and the first wave of punk rock, way before the term “alternative rock” was batted around. Their innovative, seemingly chaotic and fractured sound was original, and their musical chemistry was uniquely effective.
Immediately after Burma’s amicable split in 1983, Prescott forged ahead with a stack of his own songs and formed his own trio under the Volcano Suns moniker, writing, singing, and hollering most of the tunes himself, alongside guitarist Jeff Weigand and bassist Jon Williams. The Bright Orange Years and All Night Lotus Party featured this original Suns lineup (there were four in all). Neither album has ever been available in the compact disc format. Released in the wake of Burma’s breakup, the two blustery collections of shouty fuzz-rock made a big splash in the underground rock world and on college radio when the old Homestead label released them on vinyl.
Merge was mighty generous with the bonus tracks on both discs — mostly tracks culled from out-of-print 7-inch records, live radio sessions, and home studio demos, and song fragments that eventually landed the on 1987’s Bumper Crop (Homestead), 1988’s Farced (SST), 1989’s Thing of Beauty (SST), and 1991’s Career in Rock (Quarterstick/Touch & Go). They really cleared the vault and packed a treasure chest of Volcano Suns gems.
While mostly soaked in a din of reverb, distortion, and chiming cymbals, many of the Suns classics on these albums were more joyfully clunky than Burma’s best stuff. Rock critic Patrick Amory, a former general manager for Matador Records, described the band’s sound as both catchy and genre-straddling. “Williams and Weigand brought a grungy, hyper-mid-rangy wash of guitar and a trebly Rickenbacker semi-hollow 4008 bassline — a much tougher and more witty foundation for Prescott’s vocal roar,” Amory writes in Merge’s press notes.
While Prescott was celebrated by fans and critics for his blue-collar singing, hoarse bellow and all, he never received enough praise for his unusual drumming style. He had a dense kick/snare sound and a cool tendency to play just behind the beat on his vintage black Slingerlands, leading his tom roll with backwards sticking patterns, striking a clangy cymbal with an unexpected accent here and there.
Across both reissues, Prescott was just as unconventional on the kit as he was on the vocal mic. His unique music inspires this old fan as much now as it did back in the scratchy vinyl days.