Reinventing guitar rock

By Sergio Ariza

Sonic Youth were the definitive alternative band, they had the sound, the concept and the attitude. Besides, they were cool. Yet, they lacked the songs. With Sister they began to refine themselves and to find the perfect vehicles to prove their theory, making this record one of the first of what came to be known as ‘noise pop’, a formula that would clearly become the thing  in the following decade.

The big features on Sister are the guitars, those of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are what give the band its signature sound. And I’m not saying  signature sound offhand, for if there is one important thing about  this band, it’s their  having attained their own sound that breathed new life into rock guitars but without sounding like anything, or anybody, but  just themselves. It is evident that Sonic Youth liked punk, the Velvet Underground (mainly White Light/ White Heat) and the Stooges, but all of these influences dissolved into something new and exciting where the guitars have alternative tuning, discordant,  noisy melodies running into each other to create their own sound and exciting over what they would make and become known as the alternative nation.

Sister is their first big record, the first where conventional pop song structures are added to  their radical and avant-garde sound, for sure, leading them later down experimental roads of sound, distortion and hum. Add to all of this a kind of conceptual opus about the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and those unsettling lyrics which are their are trademark.

The record starts off with one of their most memorable songs, Schizophrenia, a song that begins more or less conventionally, Steve Shelley’s drums give way to the guitars and then Thurston Moore starts to sing a lovely melody, when it seems only logical to go to the chorus we notice that we are not faced with a conventional song or band, a kind of musical bridge appears with the first guitar dissonance, the tempo slows and the song doesn’t get back to itself, but moves on to a recital by Kim Gordon  over angular guitar bits which build  in intensity to the rhythm of the drums and begin to jam it up, and finally there is another sharp drop off and there starts a type of narcotic instrumental spin that finishes in under 5 minutes. It’s a wild ride that sets us up for what’s to come on the rest of the record.  

Catholic Block is built on a guitar riff with the same melody as the vocals, until it goes to another place on top of a wall of sound and distortion. To achieve this, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore use several guitars, mainly Fenders, like a Mustang, a Telecaster Deluxe, a wooden Jaguar, some acoustics (for the first time in their career), or what would wind up becoming their most iconic guitar, the Jazzmaster (with Fender making a signature model for each of them in 2009). Of course, in their case, each guitar had dozens of modifications, besides the odd tuning and multiple effects, some with pedals, others playing with a drumstick or a screwdriver; any damn thing to get awesome sound was used.  

The result was a record that would serve as a base for much of the alternative music that was successful in the 90s. To be sure, no other group got to sound so absolutely themselves the way they did. With Sister they reinvented themselves and managed to squeeze a new sound from the electric guitar, a wall of distortion and noise that can be summed up in one of the lines by Kim Gordon on the record, “there’s something in the air that drives you crazy”.

(Images: ©CordonPress)