A few years back a friend of mine picked up the re-release of Lou Reed’s 1975 double album Metal Machine Music and immediately returned it because there was obviously something wrong with the CD. There was nothing but noise coming from the speakers. He bought another copy and found the same “flaw” on this one. The associate at Tower Records (if you remember those) patiently explained to him that these sounds were intentional on the part of Reed and that this double album was an experiment in noise, devoid of rhythm or instrumentation. My friend went off on the clerk, explaining that he would do everything in his power to prevent the sale of this album in the future.
He liked Sonic Youth even less when he heard them, believing them to be noisy and unable to play their instruments.While any fan of Sonic Youth’s music would take immediate issue with such an assertion, people like this friend of mine need not apply for The Only Way to Go Is Straight Through, the new album from Sonic Youth’s singer/guitarist Thurston Moore and experimental musician Loren Mazzacane Connors. While not quite the anti-rhythmic wall of noise and feedback that Reed’s Metal Machine Music is, whatever genre that double album falls into, it surely has Straight Though resting uncomfortably beside it for company.
That is… if this audio anomaly can be found resting anywhere. The Only Way to Go Is Straight Up is a “Record Store Day” (April 20, 2013) only release and only on vinyl with no CD digital download release (at least not at this time). The “album” is split into two parts (for an A and B side), each consisting of a live (and apparently largely improvised) recording with the two avant garde guitarists creating a murky, noisy and occasionally melodic songscape that is sure to fascinate musicians (on some level) and scarcely entice casual listeners.
Side A, entitled “The Stone (2012/07/14)” was recorded (as the name might imply) at Manhattan’s East Village artist’s space known as The Stone during the second annual Spy Music Festival. This first half could fit well as the soundtrack to a particularly psychedelic action film taking place backstage in someone’s nightmare… that is if the piece truly reached the pinnacle it seems to be striving for. The 22-minute track feels like it’s building to a crescendo that never comes and the discordant chords never quite come together as more than ambient sound. The closest comparison I can make is Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, a similar-length recording that took up an entire side of its album Meddle. Side A here feels something like the lengthy experimental mid-section of “Echoes”, stretched out to its entire length with no brilliant musical bookends to complete the project.
Side B, entitled “Public Assembly (2012/10/17)” chronicles Connors and Moore’s second collaboration for this project when the duo reunited to headline record label Northern Spy’s showcase at the CMJ Music Marathon in October of 2012. Recorded at the Brooklyn venue Public Assembly, the 23-minute second half of the record continues much the same vibe as the first, with grinding picks on strings, heavy distortion, feedback and unmelodic strumming. While the opening of the second side does play with a certain song structure that is even pleasing to the ear, this is quickly eschewed in favor of slow paced, trippy loops that are just begging for a colorful animated accompaniment.
On the whole, The Only Way to Go Is Straight Through is occasionally awe-inspiring with its musical choices and even its pace. A sustained chord at the right time can make the listeners feel they are at the edge of a deep, dark chasm until the sounds kick back in. However, this is anything but easy listening by any stretch of the imagination. Even those weaned on the polyrhythmic math metal of bands like Meshuggah will find this album to be a hard listen. This is not to say this is poorly done, and such experimentation is laudable and worthy of applause. Be aware, however, this is a full length album of two experimental, distorted avant garde guitars with lots of feedback and grinding strumming, all done at a very slow pace. There are no drums, bass, vocals or other instruments in the mix. From an artistic standpoint, there is no question that these fine guitarists know what they’re doing and other guitarists will be impressed. It’s hard to imagine where else such a release will find its niche.