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Sonic Youth are the post punk Grateful Dead.
Face the facts: lengthy guitar jams, a love for Americana and a career spent extolling the virtues that come with free expression. Alright, so Kim Gordon’s new fashion range probably won’t have tie-died t-shirts in there, but if the cap fits: wear it backwards, dude.
Formed in the white heat of the No Wave explosion, Sonic Youth expanded their ferociously avant-garde sound to filter through key aspects of the American rock narrative. After releasing albums on cult labels such as Blast First and SST, they took the plunge to become one of the first underground acts to sign with a major label.
The band’s relationship with Geffen ended in a shrug of indifference last year. After the grunge boom ended the label bosses stopped calling, and Sonic Youth’s enthusiasm for infiltrating the mainstream was beginning to be met with an overwhelming desire to ignore it completely. ‘The Eternal’ is the band’s first truly independent album in two decades, and finds the foursome embracing their heritage as underground godheads.
Opening track ‘Sacred Trickster’ is driven by snarling guitars courtesy of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Sure, it might contain references to Yves Klein and Noise Nomads – whoever the hell they are – but above all the track rocks. Not in a Bon Jovi, fists in the air kinda way, but in a Fugazi style: all sweat, blood and conviction before stuttering to a halt after little more than two minutes. With their ongoing SYR project allowing boundless sonic exploration, Sonic Youth seem to be filtering their more experimental passages out in favour of a hardcore matinee on their albums ‘proper’.
‘Anti-Orgasm’ enshrines the group’s new ethics, with loud guitars, Gordon’s lustful squealing and pretentious-as-fuck lyrics. As if to reinforce the last point, Sonic Youth follow the track with ‘Leaky Lifeboat’, dedicated to the late beat poet Gregory Corso. Opinion has always been divided as to the merits of the Beat Generation, with Sonic Youth having always stood side by side with Ginsberg et al. However, the track feels as bit too cool for school, like a trendy college lecturer swaggering down the halls with the latest Fucked Up record.
‘The Eternal’ works best when the group switch off their brains and produce something primal. Rock ‘n’ roll is, after all, a fairly basic art form, where paeans to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ can become life-changing transcendent works through context above all else. ‘What We Know’ is a heads-down rocker, in love with Detroit noisesmiths such as The MC5 and follow up group Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. Guitars seethe and writhe while cement mixer drums bubble beneath them, before the song finally erupts in shards of feedback.
Hugely influential as they are, final track ‘Massage The History’ shows signs that Sonic Youth are comfortable with the weight of their back catalogue. Guitars chime like bells before the vocals enter, with Moore’s typically laconic delivery; except this isn’t some snotty teenager, as Moore is old enough to be a grandfather. So, while some parts of ‘The Eternal’ verge on the pretentious, the album shows signs of life and heart-wrenching vitality that secures its makers’ position at the forefront of American rock music.
The secret of eternal youth? Listen in.
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Read our review of Sonic Youth's recent show at the London Scala HERE, and look for a full interview with the band in issue 39 of Clash Magazine.