The first time "Radar Station" saw St. Peters rock-with-a-capital R-O-C-K band Sullen, there were only about 23 people at Karma -- and about 19 of them weren't paying much attention -- so it wasn't the best circumstances for any R-O-C-K band to give a stellar performance, especially because the threesome should maybe be a foursome. (The bassist identified in a photo of Sullen was nowhere to be found, and we found out later that she no longer plays with them). It takes nerve to stand up there on a big stage and play to Nobody (as anyone who gigs in St. Louis should know these days -- the rock crowd's at home watching Home Improvement reruns, apparently).
In fact, they probably should have sucked. But there they were, a girl and two boys -- Sullen -- rockin' our collective goddamn block off with the aid of just two electric guitars, an ace drummer and some of the best rock songs this city has seen since that Johnny Magnet guitarist (what was her name?) screamed, "My baby won't go doooowwwnnn on me!"
When it was over, the songs were a blur -- they melted into one another, forming one big mess -- but their impression was tattooed on the eardrum: Sullen is pretty boss. Yeah, they sound a lot like their influences -- Nirvana, Verbena, punk -- and were we basing our assessment solely on their compact disc (just a CD-R at this point, though a real pressing is on the way), they might get a few demerits. But live, they've got that certain blah-blah-blah-blah that transforms songs into profound declarations and transforms overloaded feedback into hyperbole city.
Since that fateful evening of rock, mumbling about Sullen has become commonplace within a segment of the St. Louis rock community. "My hope for the future of rock in St. Louis," says one fan. "Sullen rule! A soundtrack of very loud hypnotic guitars that put (me) in mind of the middle of "Sister Ray' without the organ. It reminded me why I love rock & roll," says another.
Quite a load to put on the shoulders of two 19-year-olds and a 20-year-old: Shanna Kiel on one guitar, Justin Slazinik on another and Bryan W. (inexplicably, Bryan doesn't do the last-name thing) on drums. But they can handle it; onstage, they seem like veterans. No apparent frayed nerves, no self-consciousness, no attitude. They seem like they've been playing for years, and, according to Kiel, they have. "When I was about 14 -- on my 14th birthday," she says, "my mom took me to see my dad, which I didn't see him very often, and he had this old Fender Stratocaster for me. It had been rebuilt, and he had changed the neck on it, but it was a decent guitar. Once my mom saw that I was serious, about a year or two after I'd started playing, she bought me a Gibson, which was really nice. We don't have a lot of money, so it was really a big thing for us. Then I met Justin, right before high school -- actually, probably right around the time I started to play the guitar, when I was about 15 and he'd just started playing, too. It's funny, because we tried to do our own separate things -- we thought it would never work if we played together, even though we were into the exact same music and we loved the same stuff and we had the same attitude towards music. We'd play with our friends who played, and eventually we figured, all these songs that we were messing around with together was just coming together, so we started doing it ourselves."
Sounds like the history of nearly every band on the planet, sure, but add to the history the simple fact that Sullen writes these nearly perfect rock songs, the kind that you think you must have heard somewhere before -- who couldn't have already thought of these progressions? -- but just as you're trying to place them they meander somewhere really weird but totally logical and you've got some great rock music, some of the most promising we've heard in ages.
Said five-song CD-R will be transformed into a legitimate release, says Kiel, as soon as they acquire the funds. "Right now we're scrounging our money," says Kiel. "We're selling everything we own. We don't get a whole lot for shows yet, especially the ones lately." The operative word, though, is yet. Go see Sullen. Really. They played the Creepy Crawl last night. You missed it. More shows to come. We'll keep you posted.
Send all local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.