Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is not remembered as a musician. Rather, it’s his paintings with their frenetic energy, launching the viewer into both the profound and nightmarish, which serve as the primary legacy of his brief but immensely productive artistic life.
However, for a time, Basquiat was also part of an experimental music group, Gray. He once commented that “[Gray] was a noise band. I played a guitar with a file, and a synthesiser… We were trying to be incomplete, abrasive, oddly beautiful.”
Considering these two elements in unison, it is understandable when listening to the latest official release from Portuguese one-woman band Surma, that the track ‘Wanna Be Basquiat’ namedrops the artist. Immediately intense and raw, within seconds the piece propels you through a hammering loop-pedal construction of industrial, synth sounds to a gripping guitar hook. The final layer of force comes from her heavily distorted lyrics, yowled into little more than abstract sounds. Basquiat might have scrawled his words but they were still legible. Here, Surma goes one step further and contorts hers totally, completing the somewhat primal feel to this track, in spite of the synthesisers.
And this all happens in less than 3 minutes. The skill of the production is recognising that the track’s magnetism lies within its brevity. It is spat out, then teeters on reaching a high-octane crescendo through Surma’s guitar work before collapsing to a close, engulfed in a cloud of white noise. This allows the frantic energy built up to this point to retain its power, and you wanting to listen again, never quite having got enough the first time round.
This is thus exactly the type of track that would be thrilling to see unfold live, both for its creation and its effect. The ability to carefully construct such pieces means it is no surprise that Surma has toured extensively on the international circuit over the last couple of years, playing at over 200 festivals, including SxSW, Eurosonic and Primavera Sounds.
In a recent interview with Lisbon Live, Surma cited St Vincent as a key influence in learning how to loop and more generally in becoming an adept electronic musician. This training is evident here, and anyone interested in witnessing Surma demonstrating it should check out this equally mesmerising, if not more haunting, live version from ZEBRA sessions in 2016.
It is therefore appropriate here to note that this song is a bit of an outlier in Surma’s official releases. Many of her tracks fall more comfortably under the ambient-electronic genre, with childlike vocals and more mellow beats creating immersive soundscapes. These can be found on her 2017 debut album ‘Antwerpen’, which was nominated by IMPALA for Best European Album of the year.
However, this only makes ‘Wanna Be Basquiat’ all the more interesting. The decision to release it now serves as a means of seeing where Surma emerged from, comparing this to the style she initially decided to explore and considering the direction she might be going in next, with the release of a new album next year. If this is a sign of the type of tracks we can expect, it is quite the statement of intent.
I was aware on a first listen that this was an intriguing piece. However, I have increasingly found it circling around my head like the hook which underpins it. Listening back, it is possible each time to notice new details and flairs punctuated throughout. This is a skilled, compelling and increasingly listenable number, accompanied by a suitably artistic and dystopian video. Powerful but tightly controlled in the right places, it packs just the right punch.
Incomplete and abrasive-and as the 2016 version, in particular, demonstrates, with the potential to be ‘oddly beautiful’. Sound familiar?