By the Fire
Thurston Moore needs no introduction. He is a founding member of Sonic Youth. He is a legend. He is a guitar god. He is one of the most innovative guitarists I can think of. This is his new solo album.
One thing that I think gets overlooked a lot with SY was just how experimental a band they were. This is obvious across their discography, as the alternate tunings of Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars lended a sound to Sonic Youth that made them unlike everyone else. But it also played out in the style of play of both Gordon and Steve Shelley, the drummer (though not the original drummer). In 1986, with Mike Watt staying with Moore and Gordon in New York City, he got to jamming with them, and played bass on two tracks on the band’s album, EVOL. Watt was depressed following the death of band mate and best friend, D. Boon, in December 1985, and so this was part of a larger plan by Gordon, Moore, and Sonic Youth to get him playing music. And thus, Ciccone Youth was born, taking their name from Madonna’s birth name. Later in their career, the band released a series of albums with various composers and experimental musicians on their own label, SY.
This experimentation has carried on post-Sonic Youth. Gordon’s duo with Bill Nace, Body/Head, as well as her solo recordings, as well as Moore’s discography, show this. Moore’s most recent album before this Among the Poetry Stricken, a jazz-based collaboration with poet Clark Coolidge, his third in a trilogy. Ranaldo, for his part, has experimented with straight-ahead rock (sort of). Shelley has continued to run the defunct band’s business, as well as playing periodically with Moore, amongst others.
Having said all that, By the Fire sounds like it could’ve been written and recorded in the aftermath of Goo, Sonic Youth’s major label début in 1990. The epic feedback, guitar noise, and general feeling here feels very familiar, and comforting, I have to say. I have been playing By The Fire almost non-stop since I got a copy of it. It is a great album. It was recorded near Moore’s home at Epworth Church Studios, in North London, and was produced by Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine, Rhiannon, etc). An odd choice, but, in the end, Epworth is working with Moore here, and he gives the artist room to be himself.
On this, his seventh solo album, he plays with his so-called London Band, comprised of My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe (bass/backing vocals), Negativland’s Jon Leidecker (aka: Wobbly) on electronics, James Sedwards on guitar, and Shelley and Jem Doulton taking turns on the drums. All of them played in ground-breaking bands, from Negativland to MBV to SY. Sedwards and Doulton have long been experimental in their work in their own bands and other artists.
‘Hashish’ is the first single, and it is all my favourite things about Sonic Youth, from the fuzzy bass, the guitars, and Moore’s laid-back, California mellow voice (yeah, yeah, he’s pretty much from Connecticut and lived in NYC for most of his life). This is a love song, and one that can be universalized, as Moore calls it ‘an ode to the narcotic of love in our shared responsibility to each other during isolation.’ He sings:
She’s the haven of my soul
Is it day or night
We just don’t know.
Meanwhile, the song chugs along, the guitars and bass in classic SY fashion as the drums pound us forward.
The second single is the second track, ‘Cantaloupe,’ which bangs into our ear, with a fuzzy bass, and then the guitar stuttering along before the distortion takes both guitar and bass, as they chug over a pounding beat. I take back what I said about Goo, above, this could be from the Dirty sessions in 1991-92. And then out of nowhere, a classic-sounding guitar solo bursts into our ears, courtesy of Sedwards, and here, rather than Sonic Youth, it sounds like a scuzzed-out 70s guitar track.
‘Breath’ is one of the longer tracks, clocking in at 10 seconds under 11 minutes, beginning with a pretty guitar, and this wonderful, subterranean bassline from Googe. The bass is my favourite thing about this song. And then, slowly, about 2 minutes in, we get a slow build, as the Moore moves up the fretboard, and hangs out there for a bit, as the tension slowly, and languorously builds, and then the music ends. It bursts back with two notes of guitar, dual channeled, and the hi-hat, and once more we’re building, building, though more furiously now. And then we build, with the fretboard getting a workout from the low to the high end. And then just after 4 minutes in, we burst into a straight ahead song, with Googe’s fuzzed out bass driving us forward over the drums, and her vocals serving as an echo of Moore’s lead. And then just after the 6 minute mark, through the guitars, and Googe moving up her fretboard, and turning off the distortion, we get a sense of impending change, as the music slowly peters out at the seven minute mark before exploding all over again. And then we drop back into the song. This is less a singular song than a series of songs or movements brought into this cohesive unit. And then we end in feedback, gloriously played.
It is followed by ‘Siren,’ which is even longer, at 12.16. Moore says he wrote the song to combat the world, the darkness that feels like its descending in his adopted home of Britain and his native country, the US, the Covid crisis, the economy, and all of that. This is the connection between us all, our community, and the love that it creates. It is another slow burner, before exploding into a classic Moore composition of beautiful guitars. He finally steps up to the mic at the 9m2s mark. And he’s laidback, mellow, singing about an ancient mermaid ritual (his words).
This feeds into ‘Calligraphy,’ which is one of the songs on the album that is just Moore by himself, multi-tracked between his guitars and the bass. It actually took four or five times before I realized that this was a song without drums and was just Moore on his own. ‘Dreamers Work’ is another actual solo song, a beautiful composition of guitar work.
Moore reports that
By the Fire is music in flames. 2020 is our time for radical change and collective awareness and Thurston Moore has written nine songs of enlightenment, released to a world on fire. Taking a cue from Albert Ayler’s “music is the healing force of the universe”, this recording offers songs as flames of rainbow energy, where the power of love becomes our call. These are love songs in a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression. By the Fire is a gathering, a party of peace — songs in the heat of the moment.
I don’t usually provide such a long quote of artist intent with an album in a review. In fact, I often think what I have done is kind of lazy. But I make an exception for this, in part because Moore’s lyrics are abstract, and because so much of his music grows out of theory. And the abstraction of his music is perhaps translated into something clearer through his own words about his creative process here.
At any rate, this is a phenomenal album, my favourite of his solo work, including Chelsea Light Moving, his immediate post-SY band/project, and its eponymous 2013 album, which was, I think, brilliant. It is out everywhere tomorrow.
The Daydream Library Series are ecstatic to release the new full length album by Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore entitled BY THE FIRE on September 25. This is Thurston Moore’s seventh solo album, and features musicians Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) on bass and backing vocals, Jon Leidecker aka ‘Wobbly’ (of Negativland) on electronics, James Sedwards on guitar, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, as well as Jem Doulton, alternating on drums.
The mesmerizing “Hashish” was the first single from the album to be released and is described by Moore as “an ode to the narcotic of love in our shared responsibility to each other during isolation.” The song includes a video with footage from The Thurston Moore Group’s tour in early 2020 in Europe, as well as footage of Thurston quarantined in his home during the past few months “with respect to the sacred healing truth of nature.”
The second single released from BY THE FIRE was the righteous “Cantaloupe” with a video featuring friends in Thurston’s local skate park. The third 12 minute single “Siren” was accompanied by a short film of a mermaid fantasy under the sea.
Prior to isolation during the COVID pandemic, Thurston worked in recording studios in North London until the third week of March 2020 to complete this album for release on September 25, 2020. While the musicians may not immediately tour, Thurston was adamant to release BY THE FIRE in 2020, and with Daydream Library, has released this quote:
BY THE FIRE is music in flames. 2020 is our time for radical change and collective awareness and Thurston Moore has written nine songs of enlightenment, released to a world on fire. Taking a cue from Albert Ayler’s “music is the healing force of the universe”, this recording offers songs as flames of rainbow energy, where the power of love becomes our call. These are love songs in a time where creativity is our dignity, our demonstration against the forces of oppression. BY THE FIRE is a gathering, a party of peace — songs in the heat of the moment.
Some of the songs feature all of the musicians whilst a few tunes are solo guitar and vocals. BY THE FIRE will come out on The Daydream Library Series distributed in North America by long-standing Indie communitarians and friends at Forced Exposure. The Daydream Library Series record label which was founded in 2018 especially to release London Afro-punk feminist trio Big Joanie’s debut album SISTAHS.