Review Summary: If you want ear trauma and profuse sweating...
...then listen to this puppy.
To listen to the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat is like traversing through various circles of Hell. This infamous album, sounding as if it were carved out of a heathen, drug-infused sage and polished with the dry blood of a virgin is the definitive epitome of sex, violence and rock’n’roll. It was released through Verve in 1968 as a way for the Underground to vent their frustration of selling so abysmally on their first record, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The monotonous, lumbering rhythm found in all of the songs in White Heat transfixes you in such a way that, as it delves deeper into manic beats and squealing guitars, you are lulled into a trance of disgust, confusion, and most importantly, wonder. How did such an animal of an LP, made in the innocence of the 60’s music scene, be contained in a mere forty minutes AND help create a new genre (punk)? Aside from the legend of the band, look at the songs:
“White Light/Whit Heat” is a fantastic, frantic and frenetic opener to the album, and it succeeds in offering the listener a taste to the wonders of amphetamine, driven by a barrelhouse piano and a pop-hook chorus. The quickness of how it opens is startling, without any sense of build up or introduction. It just starts the album with the shot of a gun. It is incredibly muffled and chaotic, most likely recorded poorly on purpose. The subject of the song is amphetamines, and Lou Reed, in the overzealous way he performs the vocals, suggests he’s commemorating their effects, addiction and usage.
The second track, “The Gift”, is a short story written by Reed in his university days set to a hypnotic, grooving bass line. While it is certainly the least interesting track on the entire album, it IS a good song, considering the story is very detailed, recited well, and ends humorously, if not darkly. The music itself is set to Maureen Tucker’s drum beat and Cale’s bass lurch. The guitar sporadically juts its way into the track, screeching submissively to the simmering tale of manslaughter in the most eloquent prose. The first listen will captivate you until the very end, where it ends as abruptly as the first track started. After repeated listens, one will most certainly go for the music itself more, as once the ending is known, the only reason to listen to Cale’s reading is for the intrinsic detail that doesn’t ask for much attention. However, this is most certainly a good song, with good music.
When “Lady Godiva’s Operation” slides into the mind with a buzzing lenience, the lyrics and vocals thrust themselves subtlety into the psyche , begging for immersion. The humming guitars, pieced-together vocals of Cale and Reed, and grim story of sexual perversion and deviance all contribute to an admittedly fantastic song, if not on the very edge of avant-garde. In my humble opinion, this is one of the Velvet Underground’s best softer songs, mainly due to the effects from Cale’s voice (the whirring saws, anyone?) to the unsettling heartbeat.
Sounding as a calling mantra to “Godiva’s Operation”, “Here She Comes Now” follows suit with gorgeous melodies, deep erotica and subdued irony (it’s about an instrument, supposedly). The chorus resonates with a dull power as Reed mumbles the chant exhaustedly, happily, quietly. The lyrics are very simple, the strumming is very simple, and the drums are as soft as Reed’s voice. It all sounds as if its miles away from where the lyrics draw you in, a sweet background to give a false sense of safety.
This music is threatening. The fact that the first four songs are either about drugs, sex, or death indicates this raw slab of Hell with black album artwork and even blacker music is a tribute to sleazy decadence and extreme flaws found in seedier sections of humanity. It’s recorded sloppily, sung temptingly, and scratches and wails its way along to the final climax of the album; the last two tracks.
“I Heard Her Call My Name” is the ugliest song on this album, and the most extreme in the Velvet’s catalogue (save, maybe, European Son). The way the extended guitar solo soars above the drums and bass strikes a nerve down the listener’s spine, pierces their ears and sometimes, in rare occasions, forces the listener to actually turn the music down. The structure of the song, at least before it falls apart in imperfect catharsis, revolves around Reed’s surreal lyrics and catchy hook. Then it goes down hill (in the best way possible). At times the bass just drops off, leaving the hollow drums to attempt to keep up with the bare, inconsistent, passionate guitar that scrapes, rasps and shrieks by in dizzying fury, breaking off unpredictably, before diving headfirst into a wave of feedback. Reed must have mutilated this guitar when he was done pissing everyone else off in the band taking all the spotlight.
The album ends with the agonizing persistence of the final track, the legendary “Sister Ray”, perhaps the sole reason this album is so loved by critics and fans. At almost eighteen minutes long, it beats the listener into submission with wailing organs, tribal drums and grating guitars. The fact that there is no bass contributes to the bare-bones and urgent nature of the song, which drags on for just the right amount of time to tell its story and torture its listener. The final circle of hell, the final step into full music madness (yes cheesy, but try imagining it this way--it really makes you appreciate this album).
When it’s all said and done, you have to get up and wipe off the sweat from you forehead, change your pants, and press play again.