I can still remember the electric thrill that jolted through me on first seeing the picture of Sonic Youth on the rear cover of Bad Moon Rising: clustered around that Ed Gein Halloween scarecrow, under a bruised mid-Western sky, the look of sneering distain on Thurston Moore’s face beneath his thatch of blond hair, awkward yet threatening in his combat jacket. The feeling was crystallised by the album’s closing track, “Death Valley ‘69” – here was a new Manson Family, armed this time not with guns and knives and Charlie’s warped charisma, but with matched pairs of detuned guitars. I knew, as soon as I saw and heard them, that Sonic Youth were MY THING, NOW. I didn’t have to continue to curse the stars in the sky that I had been too young to see Syd Barrett play with the Floyd, or travel to the Paris Bataclan to see the rump Velvets, or that I had to make do with straining my ears fruitlessly towards the Scala from atop a 73 bus in order to try and pick up the distant after-echoes of Iggy and The Stooges. Fuck that! I finally had something of my own, that was THAT GOOD and THAT IMPORTANT.The subsequent releases of Evol and Sister only confirmed what I already knew, that this was the single most significant band on the planet. Period. Sonic Youth had it all: a unique wall of sound like the sudden rush of fetid air on your face before a subway train, the scuffed Converse All-Stars, the beautiful post-Punk Xerox aesthetic of the sleeve art, a great name, great names (Thurston Moore? Lee Ranaldo?) and a seemingly direct pipeline straight down into the magma of weird underside Americana. Swans may have given building engineers sleepless nights worrying about the structural integrity of concert venues, and the Butthole Surfers might have made more stomachs queasy at the sight of backing films featuring gangrenous scrotal sacs, but Sonic Youth were the swirling, shifting hurricane at the centre of all that was holy.
Flash forward a quarter of a century, then, and it seems all the more remarkable that after getting on for nearly twenty orthodox albums, a jam-packed and breathtaking catalogue of SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings) experimental releases, and any number of quasi-official bootlegs, soundtracks, videos, collaborations, compilations, doodles, noodles and poodles, that the band rarely seem to ever have let me down, or eroded in any way the iron conviction that my younger self formed on first hearing them.
True they may have changed over time, morphing gradually from dangerous young art punks into elder statesmen of leftfield and experimental music, but what is truly inspirational about that transmogrification is that (even when signed to a major label like Geffen), it has done nothing to diminish their potency, creativity, advocacy of experimentalism or plain downright kick-ass ability to rock. That is to say nothing of Thurston’s enormous and praise-worthy patronage of the poetry and art scene in New York.In the last decade alone, their 2001 Goodbye 20th Century concert at London’s Southbank Centre (in which they baited to near breaking-point an annoying audience yelling for “Expressway to Yr Skull” and “Candle” with performances of pieces by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Yoko Ono), 2004’s awesome Sonic Nurse, and the unparalleled Jools Holland warm-up live show at the Scala in 2009 have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt they are still the definitive force to be reckoned with. The sight of Thurston, backstage, crawling around on all fours with his daughter Coco riding on his back and beaming with glee, only reinforced the certainty of that feeling: this is a band with absolutely nothing left to prove, yet at the same time with an undiminished appetite for doing so.
Simon Werner A Disparu – the latest addition to the Sonic canon and released as SYR9 – is the band’s soundtrack to Fabrice Gobert’s French thriller of the same name. Completely instrumental, the music was recorded in the first quarter of 2010, to be shaped around key scenes in the film, and was then later reorganised and extended by the band for release as the soundtrack album.
Varying in length, texture and speed, the thirteen tracks feel akin to a musical equivalent of Leonardo’s burnt umber coloured sketches, not the complete show-stopper masterpiece, but small, utterly magnificent and beautiful fragments, completely beyond the abilities of lesser mortals. Without ever really even having to leave second gear, the band still motor through in majestic style, snatches of familiar Youth refrains and styles echoing through the tracks, a fugue of all their trademarks from feedback tempest to ambient drift. At several points on the album, most poignantly on “Les Anges Au Piano”, the band even jam with the ghost of Erik Satie, Lee and Thurston both taking turns to channel the spirit of the old gymnopedist. The album’s closing track, “Theme D’Alice,” features bass courtesy of prodigal son Jim O’Rourke and is the real treat, a sumptuous thirteen minute piece of Youth magic, all shimmering guitars and lange gerade drumming – hey, Steve Shelley has been playing with Michael Rother recently after all.When the Roman Empire fell, no-one in Europe made glass or roads of that quality again for over a millennium; the same will be true when Sonic Youth are finally no more, the ability to conjure the frequencies and sounds that are their stock in trade will be gone forever, like a lost technology that no-one else can master, great musical pyramids standing in the desert, mysterious and unknowable.
Overall, the album stands alongside, say, 2006’s The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities as a multiple signature in the Sonic codex. In interviews around the time of that same year’s Rather Ripped album, Thurston and Lee spoke in a relaxed fashion about how the band, twenty five years into their existence, no longer felt pressure to try and redefine guitar music with every release, and instead treated every album as a chance to merely go where their collective muse felt like leading; if they were in the mood to do a Blondie-esque pop album, then they would. Perhaps it is precisely that spirit of carefree, enthusiasm-drive adventure that has kept the dynamic of the band strong, and the quality control unbelievably high despite the enormous amount of recording the band undertakes, both as a collective and in its constituent parts. Or maybe it’s just because they are, quite simply, the best fucking band of the last thirty years.