Sonic Youth has always been two bands. One is the punky, skronky rock band that plays exploratory but accessible and melodic anthems. The other is the band that throws out conventional structures, opting for improvisation and noise for inspiration. But the funny thing is, a lot of the time, both of these bands are playing at once. In recent history, however, the band has made a more even split, the former taking over the band’s Geffen releases while the latter has a monopoly on the self-released SYR discs. The SYR series has been, for the most part, a serious-fans-only portion of the Sonic Youth discography, as many listeners won’t take too easily to their strange nature.
The odd thing, however, about the SYR releases is that many of them are actually quite listenable, despite not having much in the way of structure or discernable melodies. The newest release, Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui, a live recording of a tribute to late experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, is not so much an exercise in feedback as it is an oddly tribal and spacious series of improvisational pieces, all of them heavily percussive and eerie.
My iTunes seems to recognize each piece as “Heady Jam,” either 1, 2 or 3, though there’s no actual tracklisting on the disc. The first consists of silences, interrupted by rumbling drums, clanging percussion and some recognizably Sonic Youth-like guitar drones. It’s out there, but not any more so than, say, Sun Ra or Pharaoh Sanders. The second heady jam shaves about ten minutes off the first one’s running time (clocking at about 14 minutes as opposed to 24), and takes on more sci-fi sounding drones and squeaks. Kim Gordon moans through some sort of distorted filter to create otherworldly sounds, as if bellowing from the swamp where Luke Skywalker crashed his X-Wing. But rather than being greeted with a Jedi Muppet, Gordon is surrounded by more creepy noises and shrieks. As the track climaxes, however, it seems to grow into a cinematic horror score, dramatic and dynamic, countering hushed parts with mighty crashes of sound.
The third and final jam is the longest at 27 minutes, and seems to be the most guitar-centric, as much of it is made up of noodly noises and such, building into a giant crescendo of feedback and distortion. This isn’t far off from what you would encounter on a typical Sonic Youth album, it’s just more fleshed-out and varied here, as opposed to being an interlude on an otherwise “conventional” song. That’s kind of a joke, of course. Hardly anything Sonic Youth does is conventional. But this release, despite being purely improvisational, is an expansive exploration into imaginative directions in sound, and finds a crossroads between free jazz, noise and ambient.
Sonic Youth – Goodbye 20th Century
John Cage – Atlas Eclipticalis
John Zorn – Love, Madness and Mysticism