Sonic Youth with Merzbow and Mats Gustafsson / Original Silence

Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth / The Second Original Silence

(SYR / Smalltown Superjazz; 2008)

By Joel Elliott | 30 October 2008

It’s pretty much been decided that there are two Sonic Youths. It’s a hard truth to accept, really, but you can’t deny that a huge percentage of Youth fans have never ventured into the band’s sub-Geffen territory. I certainly didn’t for a long time, even when I started getting seriously into the kind of music often found on their various collaborations and obscure recordings on their SYR label or Thurston Moore’s own Ecstatic Peace! label. Perhaps I’d always just accepted the more popular version of the band as the definitive one, and in my defense I’m still 99.9% sure they’ll never top Evol (1986) or Daydream Nation (1988). This strict separation is rather dubious, admittedly, but you can’t argue with the fact that the band has two very distinct strategies for each incarnation, right down to the way the recordings are distributed. It’s not surprising that Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth means “Other Side of Sonic Youth” in Danish.

The real story of these two releases, though, is Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. He’s the most prominent link between both: Original Silence is his baby, even if it happens to feature Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke, while Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth would just be an above-average jam session were it not for his and Merzbow’s contributions. Of course, privileging certain members when it comes to this kind of music is missing the point but that’s also what continually makes Sonic Youth seem so larger than life: here is a band who’s been certifiably “important” in almost every rock circle in the last two decades, and yet when they venture into collaborations with fringe artists they’re just another voice. On the other end we have Gustafsson, fierce and unconventional sax player who’s also not afraid to collaborate with rock musicians like Yoshimi and the Ex as well as Sonic Youth. A guy whose most streamlined act (the Thing, whose drummer Paal Nilssen-Love also plays with Original Silence) covered both Ornette Coleman and Lightning Bolt. Feeling the love yet?

Unsurprisingly, Original Silence are garnering comparisons of everything from Albert Ayler to The Stooges, but those expecting the lyrical heights of Spiritual Unity (1964) or the blistering blues licks of Fun House (1970) might be disappointed; this is an avant-garde record through and through. Which is to say that The Second Original Silence isn’t nearly as accessible as any free jazz on the more conservative side of Masayuki Takayanagi nor anything remotely “rock.” It’s not even as blunt as no-wave. Nor is there much “silence.” When I reviewed 7k Oaks’ masterful debut earlier this year I hadn’t banked on their being a more intense, invigorating, downright violent album to top it. When the guitars, electronic noise and death-rattle reeds finally ease up halfway through the 22-minute “A Sweeping Parade of Optimism – Blood Stream,” it’s not so much to incorporate silence and subtlety as it is a chance to recuperate, regroup, and prepare for the renewed assault of the second half of the track.

But then there’s “High Trees & A Few Birds – The Doll’s Reflection,” which is not necessarily an exercise in silence or space but certainly a (somewhat perverse) demonstration of restraint. The track is clearly dominated by O’Rourke’s electronics: beginning with rumbling oscillations as if the effects were still reeling in circles from the inertia of the last track, the other musicians gradually contribute to the stew in a way which obliterates the distinction between electronics and acoustic instrumentation. Even Gustafsson’s sax emulates the twiddling of knobs, discarding entirely the notion of fixed tones. The point isn’t a thesis on the acoustic/electric, analog/digital debate (who really cares, right) but proving that not only are electronics an important tool in free improvisation, they can also be employed as intuitively and expressively as any other instrument.

These two longer tracks are book-ended by two shorter excursions that take punk music to its furthest extreme: “Argument Left Hanging – Rubber Cement” is subject to the see-saw dynamics between drummer Nilssen-Love and bass player Massimo Pupillo (Zu) in a way that recalls the Minutemen if they had Gustafsson smearing that post-punk discipline into no-wave freedom, making the track somehow both deftly taut and sporadically loose at the same time. Closer “Crepuscular Refractions – Mystery Eye” is almost nauseating in its instability, the kind of track that only works as a finale. It takes an intense affinity for extreme sonics to need no break afterwards.

Andre Sider is the perfect complement. While The Second Original Silence is abrasive, erratic, and unpredictable, the eighth volume of the SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings) series has a zen-like approach in its structure: add musicians (seven in all) one at a time, and remove them in the order in which they appeared. It adds a lot of weight to the idea of Sonic Youth as perfectly egalitarian collaborators, especially considering the order in which they come: the band proper (which at the time of the recording, Summer 2005, still included O’Rourke) starting out, with Mats Gustafsson and Merzbow coming in last and having the final word at the end of the almost hour-long set. It may sound a little schematic on paper—the wall of sound crest in the middle when all seven are playing together is an inevitability—but it feels unconventional in a good way. After all, while most lengthy improvisations of this sort start out small, build to a climax, plateau, then gradually peter out, Andre Sider ends with a completely different set of musicians than it began with; its narrative is incidental and exploratory rather than linear.

It also adds a much needed diversity to the regular Sonic Youth lineup: what starts out as something relatively familiar even to casual Sonic Youth fans (Kim Gordon’s wispy moaning, Moore/Ranaldo’s metallic guitar scrapings) morphs into something truly alien. Guitars lose their physicality, eventually being sucked entirely into Merzbow’s formless oscillations. In this way the album has a similar agenda to Original Silence’s: layer the instruments/effects in such a way as to eventually obliterate their source. But it’s the last 10-15 minutes when Merzbow and Gustafsson are left on stage alone (it’s often difficult to tell when the individual musicians come and go, which is a feat in itself) that really shines here. Most of what comes before their addition will be fairly familiar to anyone who’s seen SY’s live sets but Merz & Gus play together as if the crowd left with the rest of the band, trading their most unhinged and playful noises with a complete lack of self-consciousness. While I occasionally revel in pure noise I’ve often found a lot of Merzbow’s music to be rather mechanical, and Gustafsson’s additions on the high end—even though he’s often just blowing around two or three notes—are a perfect, organic fit to Merzbow’s lower end rumbles.

Recorded at the massive Roskilde Festival in Denmark, you can hear some rather plaintive power chords from another stage playing as Merzbow’s squalls die out. It’s a telling reminder of how genuine fringe music can and often does brush up against the most mainstream rock. When Rather Ripped (2006) was first released I wondered whether SY was really challenging themselves with their major-label releases anymore; it wasn’t a bad record by any means but it seemed like they had finally accepted the (still problematic) separation between their pop/rock and avant-garde impulses. A rather cynical reviewer of Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth remarked that he loved the SYR series because it allowed them to get all their “self-indulgent” experiments out of the way so as not to tarnish their “proper” releases. Odd, since I think just as easily the reverse is true: Sonic Youth’s status and influence, which comes through their major-label releases and tours, has paved the way for an incredible influx of outsider bands into wider publicity, not to mention allowed the band’s less commercial prospects to flourish. Albums like these will probably always be relegated to “B” status—after all, it’s not as if the band isn’t prolific enough with their Geffen releases to satiate most of their fans—but who really needs to wait for “official” releases when you have albums like this?