Sonic Youth’s Grand Experiment

“Simon Werner a Disparu,” Sonic Youth’s ninth foray into the series they’ve dubbed SYR (Sonic Youth Recordings), is not only a completely instrumental album but also the soundtrack the band recorded for a French film of the same name.

“Simon,” or “SYR9,” is ergo an anomaly among most other Sonic Youth’s earlier releases because it was meant to accompany a film.

The film itself, translating literally to “Simon Werner Disappeared,” or simply called by its English title “Lights Out,” is a French thriller that played at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

Though a viewing of the movie was not possible for the purposes of this review, the music on the album speaks for itself. Sonic Youth, a band known for their musical experimentation, have certainly delivered on their reputation. The SYR series has in the past allowed the band to work alongside names like John Cage, Jim O’Rourke and Yoko Ono, among others. “Simon” does not change the traditions of abstraction and experimentation, despite its roots in multimedia.

Glaring tones, ominous reverberated snaps and clicks, sporadic ringing of bells and the occasional whining feedback all speak to some unknown trauma — aural oddities that all seem to nod their heads at the French thriller. Sonic Youth indeed appear to be attempting not only to create atmospheric music, but also to use their own musical style to supplement the atmospheric genre.

The tones and more spatial areas are undercut by some of Sonic Youth’s own jammed-out niceties, using galloping drumbeats and distorted guitar to contrast spans of the album devoted to tone-setting musical hints, almost imagistic ticks of dissonance.

These spaces are laid out intermittently among each other, weaving the sound of the album into an assortment of semi-abrupt starts and stops. By doing so, Sonic Youth creates a constantly shifting atmosphere, an undercurrent of rotating emotions and intuitions feeding into a message of manic discordance in the album as a whole.

Though the music tends to exude a barely repressed sense of utter panic, the album itself is at least capable of summoning cheerful notes, with tracks like “Les Anges au Piano” and “Thème de Simon,” offering some semblance of contentment.

Though they carry those somewhat bright tones throughout the song, they are never quite free of the jarring splinters of discordance that haunt the rest of the album. Even the tracks of contentment allude to the dissonance of the rest of the album, hinting in some small way — whether in whining background noise or the occasional sour note —  to the manic nefarious malefactor skulking in the background and waiting for his time to return to the spotlight.

In other times, the minute restraints are cast off and the chaotic dissonance takes hold of a song. This is the case with “Thème de Laetitia,” a track that begins with a shrill, high-pitched squealing that drones and wavers before descending into an equally torrential and cacophonous flurry of electric guitar twangs and reverberations.

Yet another flavor of bizarre tension comes in the hurried dash of tracks like “Chez Yves,” a mad forward-facing melodic sprint symbolized by up-tempo drum intro and ascending guitar riffs. But as those guitars peter out and the drumbeat comes to an abrupt stop, we are left with the rumbling backbone of the song, a raw bottom-end of a guitar that leads back into the ominous dead stroke resonation and fuzzed out rhythm that occupies so much space in the work.

It is precisely these sudden changes and rhythmic interruptions that give the soundtrack a visual aspect despite being separated from its film twin; though it may be impossible to tell what exactly is on the screen at any given time during these songs, the jarring, disjointed emotions and would-be images the band intends to flash across our minds come across all too clearly.

The passing listener will listen to an album like SYR9 and take it at face value – a bunch of rushed,  hardly syndicated melodic twangs and hums sitting on top of whirring rumbles and menacing tones. Still, the album can’t be slighted for carrying its haunting tones and using them to splinter an atmosphere into the chaotic, oddly upbeat, frenzied, downright disturbing or all of these at once. It is, after all, supposed to be the soundtrack to a thriller. Though the sounds all play into the thought that the music would perhaps be better appreciated with a movie in front of it, it also seems to take on a life of its own. In synthesizing and subsequently altering atmospheres, the music takes on an imagistic quality which registers exactly the kind of synesthesia one would expect from such great experimenters like Sonic Youth.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars