By now fans know to expect their Sonic Youth output in two tangents. Song-based major-label releases gather attention while independently released installments in the Sonic Youth Recordings series receive little fanfare and fall unnoticed in the band’s extensive catalogue. The series has acted as a means for the band to indulge its experimental side – a side Sonic Youth has always nurtured, no matter how pop-oriented its songwriting has become – without a major label having to worry about how it’s going to market a thirty-minute guitar freak-out as a record’s first radio single.
In the past SYR has included such neglected albums as SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century, featuring the band covering various avant-garde compositions, and SYR 5, with Kim Gordon clashing minds with turntablist DJ Olive and electronic programmer Ikue Moi. The sixth installment in the series, Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui, captures Sonic Youth and percussionist Tim Barnes improvising a soundtrack for selected silent short films by director Stan Brakhage at an Anthology Film Archives benefit concert on April 12, 2003.
The recording begins with timpani tones so quiet that a cough peeps through in the opening minute before scattered and random percussion creeps in and nervous rustling slowly escalates the composition. An amplifier hum swells to introduce the performance’s first major pattern – two chords repeating with some clarity atop a rhythmic accompaniment slowly gaining a feeling of order – that departs as quickly as it’s recognized. Throughout the recording, many segments, typically no longer than a few minutes, develop and fade through brief repetition. After twelve minutes of directionless clutter, the guitarists launch into meandering and interweaving patterns that give the composition an increased sense of movement, even when the dynamics pull into restraint. As the stringed instruments cascade into a thunderous din, the chaos resumes, and the composition’s ambient qualities are quickly engulfed by the familiar squeals and grinds that sonic experimentalists Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Jim O’Rourke are capable of conjuring.
SYR 6‘s three tracks, separated by musical lulls and audience applause only after the first break, define distinct moments in the soundtrack. The second track, the shortest of the three, weaves industrial sounds as bassist Kim Gordon moans free-associative phrases and sounds in her monotone yelp. And the final track, the longest of the three at twenty-seven minutes, briefly incorporates sampled noises and what sounds like a fire alarm to its constantly changing faces and releases a violent fury of fluttering, brushed snare drum, rapid-fire cymbal strikes and a wall of reverberating guitars. Unifying the entire performance is the underlying emphasis on free and occasionally structured percussion, which gains prominence (thanks to Tim Barnes and drummer Steve Shelley) aside the expected presence of Sonic Youth’s guitar noodling.
But as per the nature of such a project, the recording, removed from the accompaniment of Stan Brakhage’s films, feels as though something is missing. As the improvisation takes its many twists, you can’t help but wonder about the visual muse for such sounds. This separation possibly results in a schism between the effect of the original and the effect of the record, but the performance stands on its own as a thrilling flexure of Sonic Youth’s art-house roots.
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