For most of the shows I cover for BYT, there is an expectation, at least on my end, that I know something about the artist. On the face of it, that may suck some of the joy of experiencing “the new” or “unexpected,” but to me it adds a foundation; something I can point to and compare to my own expectations. In the case of SSION (pronounced Shun), a multimedia alt-pop project of musician, filmmaker, and visual artist Cody Critcheloe, I had zero to go on. I entered a semi-empty 9:30 Club with nothing more than a quick scroll through a haphazard Google search suggesting Pitchfork album reviews and New York Times and Vogue profiles of Critcheloe.
To understand SSION, you first need to understand Cody Critcheloe. Over the past decade, Critcheloe has been a leading proponent of expanding the spirit of queercore, a “30-year-old music and art movement that draws on the outsider perspective of the L.G.B.T. experience to both reclaim and redefine the early fury and independence of punk” (thank you, New York Times). Since founding SSION in the early 2000’s, Critcheloe has traversed the vibrancy of that perspective incorporating allusions of every element of sound imaginable from Liza Minnelli to the Pet Shop Boys. Listening to his most recent album (and the first in seven years), 2018’s O, it struck me how disjointedly liberating Critcheloe sounded. Critcheloe’s music is sonic independence and a statement of intent for a community with a voice unlike any other.
I had read before the show that SSION’s live shows were spectacles, pulsing with energy and attitude. Walking into the venue, I had to remind myself that any show scheduled on Halloween would face a fight for attendance. It’s always mildly uncomfortable to watch an artist—especially one with a rich backstory like Critcheloe—perform in a expansive open space with few onlookers; the sound carries, the transitions between songs more jagged, and thought that the artist must be looking out and thinking “really?” are constants. Despite all that, SSION delivered a performance existing in its own reality; a reality probably mirroring the set SSION performed at Jeremy Scott’s after-party on February 8, 2018. Critcheloe floated around the stage with undeniable swagger, coaxing each song with subtle movements of sexual deviance, sauntry unconformity, and undying adherence to either. SSION’s music is rambunctious to say the least; distorted bass flows through every expression, creating a soundscape that feels like the unofficial third member of the group.
Towards the end of the set, Critcheloe jumped off the stage and entered the crowd, which by that point had grown enough as to not make it seem like Critcheloe was simply jumping from one empty stage to another. As he jumped around a loosely formed dance circle, Critcheloe slowly pulled an unassuming audience into his stratosphere, like a hype man trying desperately to butter up a crowd. It was the last hurrah of an artist completely ensconced in his lane—a lane not necessarily for me, but a major necessity in music.