The sound of weirdo-rock stars taking their first steps out into the psychedelic experimentalism that would define the last leg of their career.
Midway through the ’90s, Sonic Youth formed the SYR label as a means of scratching the experimental itch that wasn’t satisfied by their major label-backed studio albums. The entire series—nine albums in total—is a gold mine of warped, rock-based improvisations, but the first three releases are especially intriguing. Released in between 1995’s Washing Machine and 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, the SYR series’ initial entries showcase a more expansive, deranged side of the band, like the ecstatic post-rock of Anagrama or the skeletal, metallic husks of future songs on Slaapkamers met slagroom. It was with the third installment, though, that Sonic Youth truly shed any pretense of pop music, instead offering up nearly an hour of eerie free improvisation. What might’ve seemed like a one-off curiosity ended up defining Sonic Youth’s final trajectory.
Invito is significant, among many reasons, for being Sonic Youth’s first collaboration with Jim O’Rourke, who would soon become an official member through 2005. Given how democratic the group’s creative process had always been, shifting from their core, four-member lineup for the first time in over a decade was inevitably going to bring about change. Still, O’Rourke’s presence is mostly understated. The sonics are nothing alien to Sonic Youth, albeit with a little less concrete rhythm and a new, tangential relationship to jazz. More than anything, this near-invisible quality speaks to O’Rourke’s defining role when he works with other groups: Rather than privilege his own conceptions, he amplifies the existent music to its logical end. This is present most in the then-novel additions to Sonic Youth’s sonic palette, like trumpet, radio noise and synthesizers.
While the surface level sound of Invito is murkier than any of Sonic Youth’s studio projects, the textural density does not result in a submerging of clear ideas. For free improvisation, the music is relatively accessible in that it favors simple contrasts and audacious sounds over minute nuances. Big shifts between pulse and arrythmia, between repeating patterns and discontinuous noise, the quintet always perform with enough intention to sell the jarring mixture of sounds they deliver. When things are loud, they’re very loud; when they’re slow and dissonant, it’s like a funeral dirge. Improv purists might turn their noses up at the idea of pop musicians treading this ground, but Sonic Youth show that they have a deep understanding of both camps, such that they end up straddling the fine line that connects the two.
The title track is easily the strongest example of this balancing act, mostly due to its careful mix of sonic diversity and slow-moving structural execution. The 20-minute track moves through multiple ideas, but each disparate part is connected by careful, extended drone improvisations. The front-end of the track is a loping swing section that highlights Kim Gordon’s vocals, which are as cryptic and alluring as ever. “When it rains/ The children don’t play,” she whispers, barely croaking out each note over the delicate mix of instruments. O’Rourke’s trumpet, present throughout the track, adds a faux-jazz element, and, especially when paired with Gordon’s smoky voice and the twin guitar noise of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, the sound—while atypical—feels complete in its grimy clash.
“Hungara vivo” is a more ghostly, nearly soothing track anchored by the airy vibraphone arpeggios that hang in the back of the mix. It’s comparatively short length of six minutes suggests that it stands as a sort of interlude, but its focused atmosphere is the most evocative on the album. It introduces an introspective quiet into Sonic Youth’s sound that one would never have predicted as the group were coming off the heels of their grunge era. Call it age, maturity or pure tiredness, but “Hungara vivo” marks the beginning of a major shift that took place as the group entered their third decade together. Once infamous for their volume and abrasion, now they were exploring the polar opposite: echoey pitched-percussion and plucked harmonics.
The final track, the side-long “Radio-amatoroj,” is the most rhythmically exciting cut, anchored by Steve Shelley’s pounding toms. Pulse is present, but not necessarily meter. There’s a reactive feeling to the track, as if each new note is bouncing off the last. While the group successfully showcase their interplay skills, the whole performance is a bit long-winded, containing neither the structural intrigue nor the emotional potency of the first two tracks. However, it is the most characteristically Sonic Youth performance on the album. It has the grittiness and the rockist lean of the group’s studio work, though with an added element of electronic noise that sets it apart just enough to earn its place on this wild release.
Even taking into account their noisy early work, Invito al ĉielo was the strangest thing Sonic Youth had released at the time. While the twin record label idea would suggest that the oddities stayed on SYR while Geffen got the hits, the opposite is true. The group never fully came back from the atonal wall-of-sound chaos here, as evidenced by the lengthy jams of A Thousand Leaves released just a few months later. Releases on both labels would get tighter (Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Nurse and much weirder (ミュージカル パ一スペクティブ , NYC Ghosts & Flowers), but there’s a certain electricity on SYR3 that never returns. It’s the sound of weirdo-rock stars taking their first steps out into the psychedelic experimentalism that would define the last leg of their career.