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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Review: Sonic Youth - Bad Moon Rising (Released 1985 on Homestead/Blast First)

First put online on the Head Heritage website in 2005

Thurston Moore: Guitars, Vocals, Devices
Lee Ranaldo: Guitars, Vocals, Devices
Kim Gordon: Bass Guitar, Vocals
Bob Bert: Drums, Percussion

Recorded at Before Christ Studios, Brooklyn, N.Y.C. Sept. - Dec. 1984
Engineer: Martin Bisi.
Produced by Sonic Youth with Martin Bisi and John Erskine.

Here we are in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century and Sonic Youth are an institution.
They also have a fine catalogue of releases and side-projects under their belts, but can also be admired for the way they've maintained an underground chic, even after some heavy flirtation with MTVdom in the past...not a bad thing, a case of 'access all areas' and a good move to gain new audiences along the way, even if it did turn out that some long-term fans got cold feet... but they would surely return later on.

Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were 'on the case' as it were, during the New York 'No Wave' years of 1977/8.
They were (separately) about town during this time, lapping up the brain-wrenching assaults that were being flung into startled audiences by the likes of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, DNA, Mars, The Contortions and Theoretical Girls to name just a few.
Ranaldo started to work with Glen Branca (a 'Theoretical Girl'), while Moore had his own group- The Arcadians (once Kim Gordon was in town, after studying visual arts on the west coast).
However, it wasn't long before the three of them hooked together and never looked back.

Their approach to song and sound construction would be a stroke of genius.
Look at it this way, in 1977, if someone mentioned the phrase- 'alternative guitar tunings', it would waft up names such as Bert Jansch, Stefan Grossman, John McLaughlin or any other such virtuoso player and would be so far removed from the standard, albeit mainstream 'punk' ethos.
But what the young SY tapped into, was the No Wave spirit of utilising your standard instrumentation as a new, crazed alien sound source.
Sure.... there were chords (!), and they were well used to give some raw grounding, but they would collect guitars such as battered old Fender Jaguars and construct songs with these hapless instruments, then utilise non-standard tunings (of their own invention), whilst they would ram drumsticks, screwdrivers and all manner of objects under the strings, turning them into strange electrified Zithers or Dulcimers, which would then be lightly plucked or totally hammered, not before being put through their growing arsenal of effects pedals and devices, depending on what mood each recording would need.
Sometimes these Guitars would sound like they were chiming out some sort of warped gamelan soundscape, other times it would be almost like a duo of delicate Harps.

Their first two studio albums and EP alone ('Sonic Youth', 'Confusion is Sex' and 'Kill Yr Idols'), would show this contrast with harsh and light and also with tracks like the fantastic 'I Dreamed I Dream', the very eerie 'Protect Me You' and 'Early American', would make them certainly stand alone from other groups of their generation.
I mean a lot of those 'US Hardcore' bands and not outfits like Butthole Surfers, Swans, Big Black etc., who were in the same innovative pool as SY, eventhough they took different tactics.

It's this third album though, that would lay the foundations for their future success in terms of 'that Sonic Youth sound'.
Each track greatly merges into the next, apart from the 'break' of the vinyl sides of course and the gap that is needed for the last track of the album.
The album was certainly welcomed when later released on CD.

"Intro" starts with warm but strangely menacing plucked strings for about a minute, before launching into "Brave Men Run (In My family)".
It's just the knack they have for presenting these songs that can swerve up to the verge of free-form madness and back to a disciplined structure in the space of seconds, all the while incorporating their own special formulated techniques which are played with such a positive force.
After the guitars attain some more bashing they incorporate the theme from 'Intro'.
Kim Gordon's voice is excellent and has a great style of delivering the words-

"seven days and seven nights
I dreamt a sailor's dream at sea
seven days and seven nights
I dreamt a sailor's dream of me"

The song has a tempered breakdown (like most do on this album), with Gordon repeating three Bass notes while the other Guitar sounds are explored with pluckings on their bridges (this is a great moment where it forms the beginning of the next track), Kim whispers- "Brave men run...away from me" - then rising out of the depths, a tape-loop sample from the start of Lou Reed's 'Metal Machine Music', comes shuddering up like some underwater tardis...
This menacing melee gives way to "Society Is A Hole", a gorgeous sound with Bert's tapping cymbals and Ranaldo and Moore's chiming Guitars, overlayed with Moore's restrained vocal anguish...with that underwater tardis wobbling back and forth in the background...

"Society is a hole, it makes me lie to my friends...
It's running down the street with white power sneakers
...on the beautiful beat of black feet......."

'Society' runs it's marvellous course and then you hear a tinny, distorted
sounding cassette machine playing a snippet of 'Not Right' by The Stooges, complete with tape slips and jumps.
It's as if SY are compelled to pay direct homage to Reed and Pop, at one time, the USA's out and out Kings of Rebellion.
Also, by way of their experimentation, SY are also tipping their hats to the avant-garde AND combining all of these gestures with their own innovative wanderings.
You can have these songs and sounds whirling around your head, like you would with any 'commercial' pop song.
They really did tap into something very strange with this album.

"I Love Her All The Time" begins with some very ghostly gliss-type string rubbings and then the rhythm section quietly sets the pace for Moore to relate the thoughts of some perturbed love-struck outsider-

"She comes into my mind, twisting thru my nerves
I don't understand, a word she says...."

Cymbals, Guitar slashings and eventual dual Guitar feedback bring this song to a close, you get the feeling of the outsider being resigned to his predicament.
"Ghost Bitch" starts where the last track left off, with upper register bending feedback, then Bob Bert comes in with a manic tribal beat in the background.
Kim Gordon's pained vocals set against some harsh strumming, but with the Bass strangely absent, which adds to it's very cold and raw effect.

"I'm Insane" has thudding Drums and chopping helicopter guitar with some of Gordon's very minimal, but perfect Bass, in which to move the whole thing along.
Moore's words present more dark imagery, rushed out in a strange time phase in one breath-

"Love starved backwood teaser farm girl hot eyed bride
stone cold blonde a quivering menace atomic wallop...
wholesale murder, we want out, we fish at night, sex in heaven
...a tough town, a cruel touch..."

"...take off your mask, lay off my brother...
...kiss my fist, stop at nothing..."

Another strange lead-in here, as there is the looped sound of what sounds like a distorted vocal gasp or choke into a malfunctioning microphone- this goes into "Justice Is Might", which has a megaphone-voice introducing the song.
Just when it's teetering on aural insanity, a six-note guitar phrase brings it back from oblivion then the Drums come in which make it more palatable, but not for long, the breakdown is here again, with the guitars left chiming and the megaphone voice disintegrating the proceedings...
but that repeated six note guitar part quietly sees it out.

Well, there is a break before the last track.
This track is one of the best tracks I've ever heard and one that can re-create the adrenalin rush you get on first hearing, time and time again.
An absolute stormer!
The track is "Death Valley '69"
Sonic Youth are joined by Lydia Lunch - the Queen of No Wave!

Bob Bert counts in the timing with four clicks of the sticks and then we're on the roller-coaster ride (or should that be Helter Skelter ride?) to lysergic oblivion.
Moore and Lunch both sing the opening 'chorus'-

"Coming down...Sadie I Love it...Now! Now! Now!...Death Valley '69!"

Lydia Lunch is such an unsung vocalist, here she counter-acts to Moore's words in a way that veers from agonised purrs in the storytelling via bleak references, while the track simmers down a touch, then slowly builds up like a longbow being drawn back, it's one of those urgent and tantalising moments, especially when they both start chanting - "hit it.....hit it....hit it..."- until the guitars are like a squadron overhead until Moore and Lunch holler the last- "HIT IT!!!"- and then sing the 'chorus' again to lead to the final blast with Lunch producing one the best female vocal howls ever... it's not loud as such, just very perfect in it's delivery.

It's as if the whole tension of the album has been leading up to this absolute scorcher.
This is why I think the album is great to listen to as a whole, in one sitting.

During 1986, I'd re-read 'The Family' by Ed Sanders, his controversial book regarding the Manson Family and all the related spook-out tales of 1960s California Occultism.
'Bad Moon Rising' became the new soundtrack to all the imagery provoked within the pages of the book.

What really gets to me about this album, is that after all this time has passed, it doesn't sound dated considering the whole thing was made with conventional instruments, 'prepared' and 'modified' as they were in places.

Also in 1986, SY really took a hold in the UK alternative stakes, even securing a memorable front cover of one of the music weeklies, depicting a blurred onstage photo of Thurston Moore with the blaring headline-
'The Shock-Wave of The New Sonic Youth'

After obtaining new drummer Steve Shelley, they followed with some great albums soon after-
"Evol", "Sister" and 'the landmark' epic "Daydream Nation".

But for me, the seeds were sown with 'Bad Moon Rising'.
A dark masterpiece.

By the way, the CD reissue contains the extra tracks-
'Flower', 'Halloween', 'Satan Is Boring' (a cracking track title if ever there was) and the short, never before released 'Echo Canyon'.

Sonic Youth still offer delights to this very day, their sound and strategy has expanded (hello Jim O'Rourke) and they always seem to have something great to offer.

Twenty/Thirty more years? Yeah....why not?

Written by Tim Jones in april 2005

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