Review Summary: I’ve never done drugs, but I imagine that this is what a bad trip would feel like…
Before Sonic Youth became a pivotal piece of the alternative rock movement, influencing even the likes of grunge mammoth Nirvana, they struggled to discover a sound that suited them. Today, fans tend to associate them with the more melodic Daydream Nation
, but prior works featured a much heavier sound incorporating feedback, cryptic vocals, and ambient noise. Sonic Youth’s sophomore album Bad Moon Rising
is a vastly haunting experience, and it can actually be quite the disconcerting listen to the untrained ear. The lyrical topics cover a broad range: obsession, insanity, Charles Manson, colonial America; but at no point does the album seem thematically disjointed. Bad Moon Rising
captures the band during an acrimonious phase, and all of the negative emotions that the band poured into this record culminated with what can only be described as Sonic Youth’s most unique record to date.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the album is its tightly crafted ebb and flow progression. The first song, simply titled “Intro”, features atmospheric electric guitar plucking that sets the mood for the steady descent into the disorder and chaos to follow. However, nothing on Bad Moon Rising
happens so suddenly that it is unexpected
. For example, the light plucking from the intro continues smoothly into and through the ensuing “Brave Men Run” which intensifies with ominous drum beats that, at times, sound like they are being played with senseless anger. “Society is a Hole” takes the atmosphere created in the first two songs and forces it to evolve – with more prominent vocals and guitar play - all seemingly without effort. The lyrics are nonsensical and almost certainly drug-induced, but nevertheless they manage to send a chill down your spine: "Society is a hole / It makes me lie to my friends / The assault of holy noise / There's a slap in my face / My friends are girls wrapped in boys."
To this point, the album can be best described as weird
. It doesn’t sound particularly dismal or evil, just unfamiliar. However, it is at this precise moment that Sonic Youth takes the listener tumbling deeper down the rabbit hole, and the journey they take you on is downright frightening. “I Love Her All The Time” serves as a crossing into a new world that is ruled by static noise, a feverish/nightmarish mood, and piercing drum beats. Complete with all of these qualities plus jet-engine samplings and eerily emotionless vocals, the aforementioned track, “Ghost Bitch”, and “I’m Insane” are all certain highlights. “I’m Insane”, in particular, also brings hands-down the most disturbing lyrics to the table: "A steaming swamp and a troubled heart / The sky is red and I can't stop running...Murded angels / Bodies in bedlam / A women scorned / You can't hang me."
The lyrics have an obviously violent nature that continues throughout the remainder of the album, but they reach the listener with a surprisingly bone-chilling effectiveness due to the emotionless delivery by singer Thurston Moore. Such death-inspired imagery as illustrated above is sang (sometimes merely mumbled or talked about) in nearly a conversational tone that, if you couldn’t tell what he was saying, could convince you that he is merely singing about what he ate for breakfast. Therein lies perhaps the album’s most disturbing element, the apparent emotional distance from anything resembling regret or a conscience. As such, Bad Moon Rising
would make the perfect soundtrack for a psychopath/horror thriller.
The tangible atmosphere of death, darkness, and a crumbling society never relents, but unfortunately portions of the album drop the ball musically. At times, Sonic Youth seems to get a little carried away with the overriding theme and its associated dissonance, because songs like “Satan is Boring” and “Flower” amount to very little beyond vocals or drumming overtop of thick, layered distortion. Luckily, these moments are not enough to ruin the instrumental integrity of Bad Moon Rising
, and they can even be seen as an endearing trait of the album’s emotionally vapid personality. Additionally, the closing tracks “Halloween” and “Echo Canyon” manage to regain the listener’s attention in striking fashion. “Halloween” features lead vocals by female band member Kim Gordon, whose whispered vocals create a hallucination that is accentuated perfectly with prickling guitar notes and distant-sounding drums. Lastly, “Echo Canyon” awakes the listener from his or her journey, with a sound resembling several explosions followed by the shattering and settling of debris. The final seconds of the album feature a gentle wind blowing, which is eventually cut short with the sound of a record scratching.
To put it simply, Bad Moon Rising
is no sing-along. It is ugly and abrasive; and even its emotions are expressed with the utmost absence of concern. This is anything but a typical Sonic Youth album, but it is also one of the most intriguing and rewarding listens they have to offer. If you have even a passing interest in dark alternative rock, Bad Moon Rising
is an essential addition to your collection.