Sonic Youth never formally announced a breakup, but there’s a hint of definite in the indefinite hiatus the noise rock band took starting in 2011, after the collapse of principal members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage.
But Sonic Youth always felt more like an idea, a collective, a constellation of players and ideas, than a single group. While 2009’s The Eternal may well serve as the band’s final statement, the years following its release have been productive for the individual members of Sonic Youth.
Guitarist Lee Ranaldo has embarked on a number of outings with his band The Dust. His latest LP, a solo effort called Electric Trim, features wild psychedelia, Grateful Dead-indebted art rock, and collaborations with Sharon Van Etten and novelist Jonathan Lethem.
In addition to her monumental autobiography Girl in a Band, bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon released a debut with Body/Head (her duo with guitarist Bill Nace) and an outing with her band Glitterburst. Gordon also launched a fashion line with & Other Stories, which is owned by H&M.
Drummer Steve Shelley has continued working with Ranaldo and Moore, also joining up with Sun Kil Moon, post-punks Disappears, and collaborating with Howe Gelb.
Vocalist and guitarist Thurston Moore has maintained an especially rigorous schedule. His fruitful tear includes the Beck-produced Demolished Thoughts in 2011, launching a new art-punk band called Chelsea Light Moving — named for avant-garde composer Philip Glass’ NYC moving company — and releasing a punky self-titled album with the band 2013. Another solo album, The Best Day, followed in 2014.
And Moore now has released what might be his best solo effort yet, Rock N Roll Consciousness.
Recorded with Shelley, guitarist James Sedwards of Nøught, and bassist Debbie Googe of My Bloody Valentine, the album documents worship and supplication. Moore has long pined for transcendence, searching for it in free music and damaged romance languages, but at age 59, he sounds more earnest, enamored, and youthful than ever before.
Actively inspired by the idealism of ’60s counter-culture, Moore connects lines between Beat poetry and White Panther radicalism on on the new album. “I named it drug music / I name it exalted,” he sings on opener “Exalted,” evoking shamans and mysticism overtop spidery electric guitar lines and a doom metal incantation.
“I like the idea of … having that kind of, you know, feeling of what the ‘spiritual’ is, but also being really academic … writing these kind of artful compositions. … It’s a bit of a balance … [but] spirituality is all about freedom,” Moore told LCD Soundsystem’s Tyler Pope on a recent installment of the Talkhouse podcast.
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On Rock N Roll Consciousness, he approaches the spiritual with a sense of openness that matches his musical palette. As much as you hear Moore’s musical touchstones — Television-style guitar moves here and there, elements of Neil Young’s deliberateness, long, winding passages of noise and black metal-inspired violence, and intriguingly, quite a lot of progressive rock flavor — his own intent is as palpable.
Moore’s heroes, including Patti Smith, Archie Shepp, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert Ayler, sought to connect to a cosmic source. When Moore sings “I come believing in your light” in album highlight “Turn On,” it sounds like he’s speaking the belief into existence; in the song’s long instrumental passage, it feels like he’s directly connected to the source of his faith.
Moore long has been a champion for independent and experimental music (note the presence of long-running Phoenix-based noisemakers Soft Shoulder on his Arizona dates), and Rock N Roll Consciousness feels like a love letter to the underground, to the kind of freedom offered outside the margins. Even if Sonic Youth is no more, Moore’s latest feels like a testament to the band’s enduring spirit.
Thurston Moore is scheduled to perform Monday, October 16, at Valley Bar. Tickets are $25 via valleybarphx.com.