We saw some raving reviews lately about a 62 year old who made a new record. And as you might know by now… when old people release music, we at Sounds from the Dark Side eventually also folk to the sidelines for our own critical appraisal.
If you write about rock music like we do, it is impossible not to refer to Sonic Youth from time to time. The band is famed for their pivotal work in the noise rock scene and helped to popularize noise rock among alternative rock audiences in the 80s. After the split up of founding members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon the band went on hiatus in 2011. All members went separate ways and for Moore it meant he could go all in on all sorts of experimental projects. Latest addition to the long list of things Thurston Moore is working on is a solo record titled By The Fire which is received very well by the international press. Since HQ has no fireplace we simply turned the heating up, cracked open a cold one and dropped the needle on By The Fire. Now, lets get underway.
Moore’s recent solo efforts were mostly all about the experiment. Rock N Roll Consciousness (2017) adds all kinds of doomy passages and hypnotic harmonics to Sonic Youth fundamentals. On Improvisations (2017) and Spirit Counsel (2019) however things shifted towards the experimental. Moore’s choppy explorations into guitar-based free jazz surly were of high potential but also weren’t very comfortable listens. Quite a few people (like us) therefore hoped for a more accessible album.
After the light beginnings on Hashish it’s clear that we got what we wished for. Moore directly taps into his Sonic Youth history by copy-pasting the main riff from A Thousand Leaves’ (1998) single Sunday. After a minute and half Moore starts singing short verses. After each verse two guitars melodically start dueling, lighting up the mood even more. Hashish almost feels uplifting. It’s something we didn’t expect from a guy who always was surrounded by distorted melangonica. We however get a darker taste of Moore on Cantaloupe. The song is made with a simple yet very effective recipe: a compelling tight riff and Moore’s worn-out voice. Cantaloupe sounds great and even got us humming along with the chorus: “…white gardenias in your eyes”. So could By The Fire be 2020’s unexpected stunner record? Well, after spinning the nine-track double album a few times we have to say no to that.
By The Fire plunges into lengthy build ups and monotonous instrumentals. Sure there are still things to enjoy but much of the other tracks also seem to go nowhere. First notice of all of this is Breath. In eleven minutes Moore starts building from a nice soft melody to a blunt noise sound. Just before things get tiresome drums kick in and Moore (together with Deb Googe) starts singing, killing off the whole build up. As things seem to fade out Moore suddenly decides to do the whole build up, drum kick and singing all over again. Breath is not an unpleasant track but also feels like a mere time filler. With still three quarters to go things easily could change for the better of course. Nevertheless By The Fire remains changeable as the coastal weather. The 12 minute Siren starts pleasantly with some slow burning high sounding guitars. It seems clouds pass by and sunbeams break through as the lengthy build progresses. Eventually Moore soothingly joins in. From that moment on Siren plays out like a standard indie rock song or better said: fades out without the noisy melodies we expected. Calligraphy continues the indie feel but takes a shorter approach and therefore is better fitting as a song.
On Locomotives we get the noise we expected earlier on. Here Moore suddenly returns to the experiment because in a 17 minute piece guitars continuously keep rumbling and droning around. Surprisingly somewhere deep within this resonance some words unfold into a song which seem to push things forward again. Or so we thought. After about 90 seconds Moore’s small gesture is batted down by guitar instrumentals again. Now however, more melody comes into play. Locomotives has more than a few good segments but jumps from one corner into another. In this manner By the Fire ambiguously nears it ending.
Luckily for us They Believe In Love is one of the album’s highpoints. It’s the kind of song that reminds of haydays of Sonic Youth only without Kim Gordon who we sorely miss here. The final 15 minutes of the album are wrapped up by Venus, an instrumental consisting of the same trebly guitars we heard on Siren. While on Siren things didn’t go anywhere Venus keeps intensifying. Slowly the jumpy sounding guitars turn into a huge eerie wall of noise which is slowly hissed out in darkness.
As said we look at By The Fire as an ambiguous work on which he’s reliving parts of his musical past but at the same time also tries to experiment within some lengthy guitar sections. Unfortunately it’s questionable if these sections pay off. We however understand these guitar works as a continuation of Moore’s sense of discovery, yet in a less forced pace that fits someone who is entering his golden years. By The Fire is no stunner but is kind of special for being a sonic experiment which you can play at any moment of the day and not only when you have the right mood for it.
Label: Daydream Library, 2020
- Hashish (5:54)
- Cantaloupe (4:44)
- Breath (10:54)
- Siren (12:20)
- Calligraphy (5:20)
- Locomotives (16:50)
- Dreamers Work (4:53)
- They Believe in Love (When They Look at You) (7:49)
- Venus (14:20)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 201120