The air in Forum’s cavernous auditorium hangs heavy with clouds of Can and Dinosaur Jr in anticipation of Sonic Youth, very much this generation’s Elder Statesmen Of Noise, returning to London to give their latest album The Eternal a solid workout.
The stage is bathed in angelic light, the backdrop consisting of what appears to be three large-format Yves Klein ‘burn’ paintings; vaguely human, vaguely erotic outlines singed brown into white, mattresses.
A brace of guitars peeks out from stage left – dozens of them, maybe. Sonic Youth, famous for their unconventional tunings, need plenty of guitars.
They stalk on stage with little fuss, their characteristic outlines and personas now as familiar as those of the Ramones: Lee Ranaldo, grey-haired and gregarious; Thurston Moore a rangy, mop-topped cartoon of slacker cool; Kim Gordon punk rock attitude in a black-and-white party dress. Recent addition Mark Ibold looks like he could be Kim and Thurston’s son, with mom’s floppy fringe and dad’s checked shirt.
They rip frantically into the dissonant Sacred Trickster, the first track from their newest album, with the sneering No Way hard on its heels, setting a pace and a pattern that will rarely let up. The set is Eternal-heavy, with the odd brief detour into history: a snarling Stereo Sanctity, a fiery, joyous Hey Joni. Thurston drawls that they’re happy to be back in “your fair city” and praises the crowd for the recent stance against “BNF (sic) goons”, accidentally conflating two of Britain’s ugliest political parties, demonstrating perhaps his long-standing Anglophilia, and certainly his age.
It’s a testament to Sonic Youth’s blueprint as snotty, bratty intellectuals that, despite most of their core members being in their 50s, the ‘Youth’ part of their name hasn’t become a joke. Kim is as icily alluring as ever and Thurston twisting and blurring his long limbs into rock ‘n’ roll shapes with the same energy and gawky charm as he did 20 years ago. They dedicate Anti-Orgasm (or as Thurston puts it, “Wargasm”) to the “fucking clowns” of the far Right, and contempt seems to drip from every squalling crescendo, until it resolves into a becalmed bliss.
This is Sonic Youth’s increasing modus operandi in recent years, firecracker bursts of noise anchored by extended passages of pastoral quiet: Antenna’s mournful, Tom Verlaine-like melody rising tentatively from Ranaldo’s howling, atonal theremin intro, Malibu Gas Station pulsing with a fierce but restrained sense of threat. The music has mellowed, but in a dark, intense fashion. An extended, feedback-squalling detour from Thurston gets a polite cheer from the crowd: turns out it’s not part of the set, but a problem with a badly-tuned guitar. He comically dismisses this problem with a cheerful “Fuck it, this is White Kross” and the oxygen in the room turns to steam before the white-hot wall of screaming guitar.
They conclude the main set with the ghostly, epic Massage The History, Thurston sitting on a chair to strum an acoustic John Denver-fashion, Kim weaving a breathy tapestry of chilling images (“come with me to the other side/ not everyone gets out alive”) while a slow hand-clap is picked out in the crowd by the blinding strobes.
They retreat from the stage briefly, before plunging once more into the back catalogue for a stirring, chiming Tom Violence and a frenzied Cross The Breeze. Their second encore sees a pounding What We Know ensue, Steve Shelley’s savage drumming a highlight, but as one of the less memorable tunes on The Eternal it would be a wee bit anti-climactic to end on.
Which makes the gig’s actual finale such a genuine surprise, one that the audience roars their full-throated approval for. Death Valley ’69, their first genuine ‘hit’ and arguably still their signature anthem, is teased out from long lines of feedback and amp-hiss, like a giant ocean liner being dragged to the surface of a choppy sea, before the thunderous drums and snaking, psychedelic melody line kick in like an amphetamine. Kim sings Lydia Lunch’s part, she and Thurston’s intertwining vocals a bit buried in the mix.
No matter, for the kids (young and not-so-young) are feelin’ it. The strobes behind the band burn into the collective skull, the moshpit goes wild, the guitars and drums froth up like tidal waves, finally breaking over the audience’s heads in a wash of white noise.
Leaving with polite farewells and thanks amid looping static from their parked guitars, Sonic Youth are such a monolith of American music now, it’s easy to picture them here again, in a few months, maybe with some new product, maybe only playing back catalogue, who knows. They endure, they mutate, occasionally they dazzle. Tonight it’s enough.