Few musical acts in the past 40 or so years can claim to have straddled both the mainstream and underground as astutely as Sonic Youth. It seems that very few people are aware that they started out as pretty much a full-blown noise band; they all contributed to the legendary no-wave scene in New York (wherein Lee Ranaldo was a member of Glenn Branca’s famous ‘Guitar Army’), and had a mutual appreciation for solid chunks of boisterous cacophony that even punk sought to leave behind. You don’t need to listen to a huge amount of their debut album Confusion Is Sex to hear what they were about during that time. Sure, they weren’t as pummelling and violent as early Swans, or as theatrical as The Contortions, but the pedigree of boundary pushing experimental rock music is inherent within the fabric of any release associated with the Sonic Youth name.
Feedback loops, swells of reverberating twisted metal and other general clamouring have been part of the Kim Gordon playbook for decades, and on new album The Switch, together with partner Bill Nace, Body/Head are doubling down on abstraction to varying degrees of success. Opening track ‘Last Time’ is a competent mix of pitch bends and slight scrapes, which funnily enough brings to mind the chiseled jaw of John Wayne slap-bang in the middle of a Mexican standoff. A semi-Phrygian twist to the vocals help to give rise to the other textures, but this is business as usual for Gordon. ‘You Don’t Need’ begins with a beautiful low slung drone that slowly envelops into arpeggiation, and ends like a fissure in-between the microphone and tape recorder. While the sounds themselves are pleasurable, there’s a certain meandering nature to these first two tracks.
Luckily, the second half of the album greets us with a slightly more nuanced palette and heavier emphasis on production techniques. Much of ‘In The Dark Room’ reads as a lost recording of a band that were simply too loud to be captured on audio, twinned with a struggling drone in the opposite channel, playing out like the feeling when you strain for memories that you know are there, but just can’t grasp. ‘Change My Brain’ gives a feeling of perpetual motion not felt on other tracks, almost like a deconstructed black metal song, with your feet pumping through a darkened forest in winter. Closer ‘Reverse Hard’ would be right at home on Swans’ 1996 leviathan LP Soundtracks For The Blind, and the sudden burst of gnarly distortion towards the end completely displaces you, leaving you suspended and frozen. Its a brilliant conclusion to a journey of an album, and thematically seals the narrative.
Despite the abstract nature of the project, it’s not a particularly loud one – there are moments here that reach for subtlety and poignance, and find a sort of catharsis in the grey areas of sound. Kim Gordon is absolutely a product of the experimental noise scene she was born out of, and her legacy, while already airtight, can only be heightened by refusing to play it safe in the latter stages of her career.
THE SWITCH BY BODY/HEAD IS OUT NOW VIA MATADOR.