The apparent end of Sonic Youth in 2011 after a 30-year career must have left a considerable void in the life of their leader and founder member Thurston Moore. Following the end of his marriage with long-time partner and band mate Kim Gordon, the band was placed on indefinite hiatus. There is no question that the loss of arguably the most important and enduring alt rock band of the contemporary era would leave a chasm, particularly in the US indie underground in which Sonic Youth were such an integral part.
Moore’s new band, Chelsea Light Moving, could possibly be the group to fill at least part of that void – and they’re a considerably different proposition than Moore’s previous solo album, the acoustic introspection of 2011’s Demolished Thoughts. Chelsea Light Moving is the sound of the now 54-year-old punk rock veteran reclaiming the visceral aggression and righteous passion of youth. As such, their self titled debut is the heaviest and most thrilling album Moore has been involved with since Sonic Youth’s chaotic mid-’80s peak.
This is far from a vanity project from a washed up rocker raging against the dying of the light. Moore has assembled a band that is super tight and who rock with a white-hot tension, giving every song a scabrous and discordant feeling of positive energy. Joining Moore is Samara Labelski, a survivor from Demolished Thoughts, on bass, Keith Wood of Hush Arbours on guitar and the hugely impressive drumming of John Moloney from Sunburned Hand Of The Man. The quartet are a supremely formidable machine.
While much of the music here is aggressive punk rock, there is nothing witless about it. The innumerable heavy passages are punctuated by dreamy psychedelic tinged instrumental sections, which help to heighten the startling effect of the punk rock attack. Much like Sonic Youth, nothing is ever truly straightforward. Opening track Heavenmetal is an example of Chelsea Light Moving’s ability to adapt to different sounds. Here, the guitars are soft and lilting with Moore’s voice almost glowing with childlike enthusiasm as he sweetly coos, “be a warrior and love life”. This is later contrasted with the staggering metallic riffs of Alighted, which sees Moore insouciantly proclaiming “I came to get wasted”. Later, he is almost frothing with rage, sneering “Get fucking mad, too fucking bad”. Throughout these shifts in mood and tone there remains a palpable sense of energy and vitality to the music as it moves from sludgy death rock to discordant drone or spiky melodic pop.
You get the impression that Moore sees Chelsea Light Moving as a continuation in the evolving process of US underground indie rock, going right back to the ’60s. Indeed, two of the album’s highlights directly reference NYC counter cultural icons of the ’60s in William Burroughs and Frank O’Hara. Burroughs is perhaps the key track on the record. Inspired by the author’s last words, it goes off on a tangent of noise and idealism that is impossible not to be swept up in. If ever there was beauty in squalling guitar feedback it is here.
Thurston Moore is quite obviously an artist who places great credence on rock ‘n’ roll and underground cultural history, and he seems to provide a self-mythologizing manifesto on Mohawk where he delivers a spoken word monologue over a repeated droning guitar figure. The words here reference some of his and his peers’ experiences from the past in an oddly touching way. Anyone not familiar with any of these back stories may find this sort of context baffling or a bit off-putting, but either way you sense Moore has no time for anyone who does not buy in to his ideal of punk rock.
Over the course of the album, Chelsea Light Moving reveals themselves to be an extremely promising new band. The spectre of Sonic Youth of course hangs heavily over them and the album does not quite have the same frisson of avant weirdness that the best Sonic Youth records have, but there is more than enough quality here to once again establish the eternally youthful Thurston Moore as one of alternative rock’s most vital voices.