Sonic Youth – SYR 8: Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth

January 01, 1970




Back in 1997, Sonic Youth released Anagrama on their own SYR imprint.  
The release, and indeed the imprint itself, was the culmination of many
years of running the fine line between various rockist leanings (punk, post, no
wave, or whatever) and a sincere interest in the “new music” sphere that runs
from Cagean composition (and chance composition) to free jazz and ultimately to
noise (and not necessarily in that order, or any order).  The SYR series allowed the band to let some
of the mad animals out of the closet and for the first time listeners were able
to readily purchase Sonic Youth in modes that Geffen Records-and god knows
Starbucks-would likely have balked at.


The seven releases since 1997 have included bassist Kim
Gordon’s collaboration with Ikue Mori and DJ Olive, an initial collaboration
with the whole band and Jim O’Rourke, a double CD of interpretations of graphic
scores by late 20th century composers, and various live free
rock/noise jams.  SYR 8, Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth, is one of
the latter.


SYR 8 finds the band performing a single hour-long live
improvisation as the “Other Sides of Sonic Youth” portion of the 2005 Roskilde
Festival in Denmark and they are joined by Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson
and Japanese noisician and sound artist Masami Akita (known to the world at
large as Merzbow).  At some level it’s a
dream set, with Gustafsson’s charging horn whipping the guitars into sonic
blasts and Merzbow’s merznoises exploding against (or perhaps with)
then-SY-member Jim O’Rourke’s own laptoppery. 


As a listener this is challenging material, but it largely
works because of the shifting nature of the improvisation.  Despite the general sense of pure volume that
the three entities of Sonic Youth, Gustafsson, and Merzbow have engendered over
their years of performance, there is a surprising sense of dynamic here.  Performers add themselves to the mix, with
each member of the ensemble entering and then, one by one, exiting the
soundfield.  The accumulation rises to
fever pitch in the third quarter when it seems everyone is onstage together,
before dropping into Gustafsson’s plaintive bleating against Merzbow’s
static-encrusted sound field, a listening experience akin to hearing a wounded
animal’s attempt to plead with a digital wolf. 


The addition and then subtraction method works here because
without it we might have gotten a less dynamically interesting performance and indeed
the subtractions offer a sense of closure, an experience that is possible with
an artist like Merzbow only when the CD reaches its final track and the sound
of the room itself rises back from the ringing in one’s ears.


This isn’t the best of the SYR series-that I would reserve
for the excellent off-the-cuff Jim O’Rourke collaboration SYR 3 Invito al Cielo-but it’s better than the
recent SYR 7 vinyl release J’accuse Ted
Hughes/Agnès B Musique,
which is to say it’s worth a listen, particularly
to hear Gustafsson and Merzbow wrestling toward the end. CHRISTIAN KIEFER


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