Sonic Youth w/ Mats Gustafson & Merzbow



Applause. People like Sonic Youth.


Sonic Youth are playing. There are hesitant, faltering strums of a rusty-sounding guitar. Steve Shelley’s drums pick out random rhythms – the instruments are circling without really saying anything. Wish the same could be said for Kim Gordon, who elects to bless us with her ‘improv’ singing. The excruciatingly blank breathy noise which she used to such numbing effect on the Fun From None DVD, occasionally punctuated with a token “Save mah soul!” The audience is either in quiet reverie or rapidly coming to the conclusion that this is going to be one of those Sonic Youth shows (see the indiekids confusion and horror at SY’s 2000 ATP-debut – the band mistakenly assumed it was an avant-garde music festival and delightedly disappeared up their own Jazz Odyssey) and are heading to the exit.


Sudden whooping at an effect pedal being clicked to ‘on’. As tedious and (ugh) obvious as it must be to suggest that the best Sonic Youth moments are ‘Kool Thing’, ‘Teenage Riot’, ‘Sugar Kane’, the one really great innovation this band had was combining the unearthly death-hovers and strafing heat-rays of Thurston and Ranaldo’s guitars with hyperdriven pop melody. They are impressively flat-sounding energy-beams, powering-up what should be bog-standard indierock tunes into something nebula-surfing and cool. Instead of wanting to make you just ‘dance’, those guitars make you want to run into a wall as hard as you can to see if you explode into atoms and reconstitute as a being of pure energy. Here though, the playing sounds so fucking joyless… you just can’t imagine anyone playing like that – mainly just un-atmospheric, space-filling string-rattles – and deriving any kind of enjoyment from it whatsoever. The only more empty-sounding noise a guitar could make is the compressed-to-death crunch of nu-metal.


Hang on, aren’t Mats Gustafson and Merzbow credited on this album too? Look, there’s Merzbow on the cover. Peering forlornly over his laptop screen at the preening gaijin that have adopted him. What are they doing? Mats must be staring at the valves and wires of his electronoisedeathjazzsax and wondering just how he’s going to cram those L-bends of squawk into this mush of music, where any space in the sound is arrogantly doodled over by one of Sonic Youth. Meanwhile: Merzbow is very in-demand Japanese transgressive noise musician, has very many email to answer.


Hang about…


False alarm.


Almost imperceptively, something inhuman is scrawling itself across the back of the sound.


THAT’S what I’m talking about! A sudden SPLAT of electronic noise dashes some much-needed colour into this draining monochrome.


Almost psychically-suggested laptop pulses start to bubble up. SY suddenly rein themselves in drastically. The music starts reconstituting into tunnels.


Mats Gustafson in the house! Ladies and Gentleman, may I introduce, the DEATH NOISE.


Baleful oceanic DEATH NOISE. Mats’ sax signalling to Merzbow’s electric-whaler like the song of a broken siren. Meanwhile: Sonic Youth have forgotten how to play music.


Merzbow and Mats Gustafson fight music! Sonic Youth defend music and LOSE! For people who are such altruistic custodians of improvisational and experimental rock musicians, Sonic Youth can be really exceptionally bad at improvising themselves.


Applause. People like Merzbow.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today