In the mid-‘80s, SST was the preeminent independent record label, with an impressive roster of bands who arose out of the hardcore punk subculture to define a uniquely American form of guitar-based rock music. Originally formed as an outlet for the owners’ own band, the legendary Black Flag, by 1985 SST was putting out groundbreaking albums by the likes of the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and Saccharine Trust and through their in-house agency, Global Booking, had built up a vast network of connections around the country which allowed these bands to tour extensively. For a time, the SST brand was the imprimatur of quality: from their distinctive graphic design to the sound of the music, you could be assured that any record on the label was at least good—and many of them were undeniable masterpieces. The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) and Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984) were both sprawling double-albums packed with sharp songs and impressive musicianship while the Meat Puppets had quickly evolved from the primitive sludge of their debut EP to the melodic, vaguely folky Up on the Sun (1985). While nominally considered “hardcore,” the SST bands were about more than just screaming and noise. Even Black Flag had grown out their hair and incorporated extended guitar solos into their sets, like a metallized Grateful Dead.
Unhappy with Homestead and their tenuous relationship with a faceless corporate parent, Sonic Youth were well aware of SST and had signed on with Global Booking to handle their tours. Ever the fanatical record collector, guitarist Thurston Moore was especially eager make the move, calling SST “the ultimate label.” But the New York band did not quite fit in with the label’s West Coast aesthetic. It didn’t help that they had cultivated an artsy, Downtown image, working with cutting-edge artists like composers Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, video artist Tony Oursler, filmmaker Richard Kern and a variety of other notorious avant-gardists. According to Joe Carducci, one of the principals at SST, Sonic Youth clearly lacked the “new redneck sensibility” that had come to define the label, at least in his mind. But after his departure, SST was quick to make an offer. The label was looking to expand its influence nationwide and knew Sonic Youth would give them the inside track on the East Coast scene while burnishing their image as home to the best bands in the land. For Moore, “It was like a lottery ticket… there was no way I was going to deny doing records for SST.”
Recording sessions for EVOL began in February, 1986. Working once again with Martin Bisi, who had recorded their previous album, Bad Moon Rising, the engineer was bemused by the truckload of guitars which were delivered to his Brooklyn studio. By this time, Sonic Youth had perfected the art of alternative tunings and each of the battered, cheapo guitars was specifically tailored to an individual song. Derived in part from their participation in Glenn Branca’s massive electric guitar symphonies, Moore and bandmate Lee Ranaldo took the concept of non-conventional tunings into the realm of punk rock, jamming screwdrivers between the frets and banging the strings with mallets to create a clangorously beautiful soundworld uniquely their own. From gentle, koto-like plucking to weirdly ringing chord progressions to the whorling sound of an electrified, psychedelic gamelan, Sonic Youth was creating guitar music like no other. EVOL would be their first fully realized statement.
EVOL also marked the first appearance of new drummer, Steve Shelley, whose impact would be subtle but profound. Sonic Youth had struggled with a string of less-than-totally satisfactory drummers in their previous history, including Richard Edson, Jim Sclavunos and, most recently, Bob Bert. When Bert unexpectedly quit the band at the end of their 1985 European tour, Shelley (who at the time was housesitting for Moore and his wife, bassist Kim Gordon) was invited to join without so much as an audition. Already known for his work with the Crucifucks, a riotous hardcore band from his native Michigan, Shelley brought precise timekeeping and reliable professionalism to the drumstool for the first time. From opening song, “Tom Violence,” his presence is immediately felt, the pummeling tom-toms belying his meek, bespectacled countenance.
Now, the band could truly rock and together they crafted their most ambitious—yet oddly accessible—set of songs for the album. “Green Light” is almost a love song, sung by Thurston to Kim, while Gordon finally comes into her own as a vocalist, combining a breathy whisper with caterwauling screams on “Shadow of a Doubt,” the lyrics appropriated from the Alfred Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train (1951). Elsewhere she coos sweetly on “Secret Girl,” accompanied by Moore on piano, and sings with knowing innocence on “Star Power,” an examination of teenage obsessions with celebrity—and the closest thing to a pop song they had ever written. While some tracks, like “In the Kingdom #19,” which features Ranaldo reciting a poem about a gruesome car crash, and “Marilyn Moore,” written years before, retain some of their dissonant, No Wave roots, EVOL was a remarkably tuneful and approachable album. Songs erupt into squalling noise jams or descend into dense atmospherics but the songwriting is well-crafted and compelling, a quantum leap from previous efforts. Neil Young would later describe “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” the dreamy, quasi-ballad which closes the record, as “the greatest guitar song of all time” (Young, who knows a thing or two about guitar songs, invited the band to open for his 1991 tour with Crazy Horse).
Sonic Youth would make one more album for SST, the even more listener-friendly Sister (1987), but relations with the label quickly soured. Accused by the band of refusing to pay royalties while massively expanding their release schedule—at one point releasing a preposterous 80 albums in one year—SST eventually collapsed under the weight of their own success. The band later sued for return of their masters and the distinctive SST logo no longer graces the cover of the currently available editions. In retrospect, EVOL was a transitional album; they would certainly go on to bigger and better things, eventually signing with a major label in 1989. But EVOL remains one of my favorite records. It reminds me of a time when punk rock seemed to matter, as a reproach to the greed and cynicism of Reaganomics and an antidote to the bland, conservative synthpop of the era. No band of that time was as artistically adventurous as Sonic Youth and no label mattered more than SST. They were out to change the world—and they succeeded, to some degree. EVOL represents the first mature Sonic Youth album and still sounds as fresh as it did then. Sure, they made better records in later years, but none of them felt as important as this one.