1986 Sonic Youth sounded dangerous and scary. They were playing around with noise in ways that really hadn’t been seen before in popular culture, deconstructing what a guitar meant and what came out of it. Then, when they had broken down the guitar – sometimes literally – they would rebuild it and turn it from an instrument which could make a racket into something entirely new. It was proto-shoegaze, but whilst most shoegaze was cloudy and blended every sound into a swirl, Sonic Youth’s sound posed a threat. But Spinhead Sessions, which was the rehearsals for their film soundtrack of Made In U.S.A. shows the band writing music without the expectations that it be anything like their reputation, and most importantly, give the visual side prominence over the audio. So there’s few sonic freakouts like ‘Death Valley ’69’ and more of the ambient and ominous feedback. It sounds very Lynchian; imagine it as a precursor to what Xiu Xiu did this year on their Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks album. It’s still scary guitar-based music, but more subtle and less reliant on the vocal side of Sonic Youth to make a point.
Sonic Youth have to fill that wall of noise-void with something, so they rely on thick, pounding drums, tinkling bells and of course, the guitar. Feedback is predominant in the standout ‘High Mesa’, which makes use of slow drums that lumber around heavily like a horror movie villain. The guitar appears from two directions, one of feedback, and another picking spooky high notes. It’s no surprise that this is film soundtrack material, it has the pace, the moodiness and the atmospherics to completely transform any visual aid into a creepy slasher movie. This is another side to the Sonic Youth that made Bad Moon Rising into a backwater American horror album, it’s not screaming walls of noise, but it’s subtle and intricate – and infinitely scarier. There are slight variations on the same theme which Sonic Youth play with on Spinhead Sessions, with the addition of the bass on ‘Theme 1 Take 4’ and the guitar taking on the role of spaghetti western shoegaze (new genre right there) as the band break the mould of quiet to break into a small crescendo.
It’s a shame that the backhalf of the album sounds less like a soundtrack and more like early demos that weren’t as developed as ‘High Mesa’ or ‘Ambient Guitar & Dreamy Theme’, but you have to take into account that this is a demo album, to be developed into a soundtrack later. So looking at it like a lost album might not be as useful as looking at it as a bunch of scraps to be pieced together later. Therefore, it’s hard to recommend it to anyone other than someone who has a huge interest in this band’s rarities. It’s quite short and only consists of demos, but it is a different side to a band that you rarely get to see. They just did a soundtrack with no preconceived idea of how it should sound – and it ended up pretty well.
Funnel Recommends: Ambient Guitar & Dreamy Theme / Theme With Noise / High Mesa