Artist: Sonic Youth
Album: Sonic Death
Genres: No Wave, Noise Rock
Sonic Youth is a band I myself could never fully get into. The biggest factor for that is guitarist, bassist, and vocalist Kim Gordon. She is possibly one of the worst vocalists I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. Her delivery is consistently bland and uninspiring, bringing down any song that she appears in as the dull delivery of her vocals never demands any attention nor deserves any. And unfortunately, Kim Gordon’s boring, mundane vocals happen to spring up in almost all of Sonic Youth’s discography. Her bass and guitar playing are fine by the way, it’s just her poor vocal performances that manage to outweigh any sort of instrumental prowess she has.
Whereas Gordon’s voice never fully enabled me to really enjoy or be blown away by any of Sonic Youth’s studio material, it is this live album right here, Sonic Death, that manages to hit it out of the park for me. On this live endeavour, Gordon barely makes any vocal appearances (thank the lord) with other lead vocalist of the band, Thurston Moore, stepping up to a lot of the singing responsibilities here. And whereas Thurston can at points sound bland and uninspired just like Gordon, he is still able to achieve some pure moments of raw passion on this album, something I think that Gordon was never able to achieve.
Now, Sonic Youth has gone through a lot of phases as a band, and this album was recorded during their first phase, their “no wave” phase. Their days of societal and sexual frustrations shown from their first release, their self-titled EP. All the way to their last no-wave effort, EVOL. Whereas their next phase after EVOL would involve Sonic Youth delving into a more alternative sound, most strongly demonstrated on their 1988 hallmark album, Daydream Nation. Their next phase after that (starting in 1995) would have Sonic Youth incorporating a much more experimental sound into their work, with the band establishing a new line of albums/EPs that would be included in their SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings) series, which definitely took a major turn from their previous work as it was mainly instrumental, much more experimental, and completely different than what Sonic Youth had ever done before.
Although some of the SYR’s were definitely hit and miss, it added a whole new sound to the Sonic Youth catalogue and freshened up their sound, allowing them to freely re-invent themselves. (Well, for a short time at least, before they went off to trying to remake Daydream Nation.) And do you want to know what their biggest precursor was to their experimental work? Yep, you guessed it, this bad boy right here. Sonic Death. When it comes to Sonic Death, it is a very mixed bag when it comes to defining just in fact what the hell it is. Upon first listen, depending on who you are, it can sound like poorly-recorded pretentious garbage. Or it can sound like an eerily beautiful, aural translation of a fever dream. I, of course, being the pretentious nerd that I am, go with the latter.
On this album, Sonic Youth play their catalogue from their No Wave era (with a little hint of free improvisation thrown in), but in this whole new twisted demented way that manages to spark new life into the songs. The lo-fi recording of their performances make the action feel so dissonant yet so hypnotising, adding so much more to the experience. Sonic Youth even play around with some sound collage here believe it or not, adding to the fever dream-like quality of the album. There is also no track listing to be found here either, so most of the time, you are entirely blind as to what they could be playing, and the “songs” they perform here barely even segue into the other, sometimes just stopping abruptly and diving head first right into the next one, adding this new layer of chaos and unpredictability to the music. The album at times can seem more like an insight into a demented person’s stream of consciousness rather than an actual commercial product, which can taken how you please.
All in all, Sonic Death is a noisy beast that spans for over an hour, and during that entire time, expect to be captivated by the haunting nature of the music and the amazing dissonance of these amazing re-tellings of their songs. Unfortunately, a physical version of this album can be very hard to come by, but there has been a full version uploaded to YouTube. Although this album isn’t for the faint of heart, I believe that it should be essential listening for any avant-garde nuts out there.