Raymond Pettibon is possibly the most recognizable artist of the hardcore punk scene of the 1980's. His drawings were used as cover art and other promotional material for several artists, most notably his brother Greg Ginn's band, Black Flag.

It is because of this association with respected underground music that Sonic Youth reached out to Pettibon to design the artwork for their major label debut, Goo. In the early 1990's, a band that had established themselves in the underground music scene making the move to a major label was completely unthinkable. Corporate rock was seen as the antithesis of the artistic, integrity-laden music that bands like Sonic Youth were making, so by choosing Pettibon to design their cover, it is an unspoken way of assuring their fans that they were not eschewing their ideals by moving to a major, but rather seeking a wider audience for their particular brand of noisey art rock.

After flirting with mainstream success during the "alternative" fallout of the early to mid-90's, and headlining Lollapalooza along the way, Sonic Youth had acrued enough money as a band to purchase their own studio. Being freed of the cost constraints renting studio time entails, they were free to openly experiment with recordings. They sifted through these sessions, found the strongest cuts, and organized them by feel. This is how the first releases from the SYR series were born.

Their record label deemed the recordings "too experimental," and "blatantly uncommercial" and refused to release and promote them. Undeterred, the band started their own label, (SYR) and released the pieces one by one.

The first of these is, of course, SYR1. These soundscapes are soothing, strangely jazzy, and surprisingly accessable. Conventional tonality is left at the door, but that is not to say that there aren't hooks. The third track, Tremens, for example, floats along, ebbing and flowing like a raft on a lazy river, the tritone riff feeling like ripples on the water.

The fourth track, Mieux: De Corrosion, is certainly the least tonal of all the selections offered here, and definitely the most challenging piece on this collection. There is a constant sine wave-like flange that accelerates ever so slightly throughout, and chunky guitar parts work as a counter part to this. The band uses the guitar percussively here, the actual pitches not painting nearly the picture the rhythms do; changes in pitch serving only as an additional level of percussiveness. Since the flange and guitars aren't always in sync with one another, the listener is subjected to almost a neo-hemiola: two different time signatures interacting, but here tempo is added as an additional variable.

Very dense, very beautiful, and ultimately very rewarding, the first installment in Sonic Youth's most progressive releases is well worth the price of admission.

September 2014



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