[30 January 2006]
Sonic Youth has never been the most commercial band. Even though this act once headlined a Lollapalooza tour, it is by no means an alternative rock juggernaut. Even on its “mainstream” releases, for instance, the “songs” that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon sing are supported by the kind of noisy, guitar feedback that isn’t exactly for everybody. Its songs jarringly jump out at you on commercial radio – assuming, of course, you can actually hear any of them there. This release, however, does not fit into such a loosely defined pseudo-commercial category.
Sonic Youth also has a strong taste for extremely experimental music, which is explored fully on Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui Su Tim Barnes, a tribute to the work of avant-garde filmmaker, Stan Brakhage. This release is broken down into three long (mostly) instrumental pieces, each called “Heady Jam”: “Heady Jam #1” clocks in at 24:16, “Heady Jam #2” is significantly shorter, at 14:13, and the disc closes with “Heady Jam #3,” which at 27:02 is the longest piece here. Each track is, presumably, an improvisation inspired by a Brakhage film.
Opener, “Heady Jam #1,” begins in a quietly percussive manner comprised of pulsing bass, toy piano, and wind chimes. It builds into an electric cacophony towards its end, however, due to plenty of howling electric guitar work. It’s drumming is free and jazz-like, with scattered snare and rim shots. Before it’s all over, it peters out with quiet drumming.
”Heady Jam #2” opens with low, rumbling feedback and echoing percussion. There are also cymbal shots and what sounds like non-worded vocals and breathing. A few of these “vocals” sound like they’re being verbalized into an electric guitar body. In many instances, these verbalizations come off like somebody panicking; as if they’re drowning at the bottom of the ocean. This conjures up images of someone trying to form words while underwater and struggling to be understood. But then again, it could just be the sound of somebody climaxing sexually, too. We’ll just leave that up to the listener to decide. This vocal is most likely the female voice of Gordon. There are other places where this vocalizing comes off like a Buddhist chant, or a drone of some kind. Computer-y bleeps are also thrown into this busy mix.
“Heady Jam #3” begins quietly, with what sounds like a faraway swarm of bees. Guitars fade in and out, and you’d swear Big Ben was sounding off someplace in the distance. The guitars then begin to operate like African tribesmen communicating with each other, with those distinctive vocal clicks such peoples sometimes use. It’s almost as though the guitars are being pounded on, rather than strummed or picked, before they eventually give way to scattered and unnamable chords. Midway into this piece, buzz saw guitars enter in, as well as male spoken word parts which cannot be easily made out. It’s the voice of someone speaking in the distance, one supposes. You know it’s a male human voice, but you just can’t make out a single word he’s saying. It could even be a far off radio or television. Whereas the other two pieces in this set start off quietly, before building to a big finish, this one ebbs and flows, much like the tide. One third of the way through, it sports the closest thing to a true guitar solo, which is nothing more than a series of speedily picked notes. Before it’s all over, this guitar onslaught builds into a true hurricane of sound.
Whatever you decide to make of this recording, it’s certainly Sonic Youth at its most indulgent. It might be described as punk rock free jazz—for lack of a more fitting term—because these sounds travel via the moods of its players. There are no steady rhythms or memorable melodies. Instead, these three tracks are comprised of various electronic sound-scapes, which are mixed and matched together, seemingly at random. If Brakhage’s films are anything like this music, plot lines and character development are likely unnecessary elements. It’s fascinating to hear how these tracks grow and take on lives of their own. And just what these living things actually are, is left to each listener’s imagination.