Following the dissolution of Sonic Youth in 2011, Kim Gordon has had plenty of time to pursue a range of eclectic solo endeavors. Earlier this year, she joined forces with Alex Knost to form Glitterbust, establishing a dizzyingly dense brand of noise rock. Now, she has reunited with avant-garde guitarist Bill Nace for duo Body/Head’s second full-length release. However, instead of merely presenting this new LP as a standard studio album, the duo–and record label, Matador–have decided to give us a live set, captured during a 2014 performance at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. And while the album does technically consist of “tracks,” Gordon and Nace’s highly experimental approach prevents any of these offerings from ever truly feeling like self-contained pieces, as they gradually evolve in texture over the course of many minutes.
Much like her work with Sonic Youth, Gordon’s guitar method eschews more orthodox playing techniques, opting for a unique, textural approach. Her songs employ very little structure or melody. They instead fashion dense, blaring soundscapes that employ a wide range of distorted guitar noises whilst offering little in the way of standard percussion. Body/Head’s latest work, No Waves, is no different. Gordon and Nace stuff the album’s three lengthy tracks to the brim with texture. The album opener, “Sugar Water,” offers a swirling blend of guitars buried in dense layers of reverb. “The Show Is Over” captures a more discordant, strikingly atmospheric tone, featuring a medley of wailing guitars. Finally, the sprawling final track, “Abstract/Actress,” establishes a hypnotically repetitive riff that is accompanied by vocal wails and guitar feedback. Toward the end of this twenty-three minute piece, Gordon and Nace feed us some remarkably harsh textures (even including a harmonica). They incorporate bizarre guitar noises that any more conventionally-minded guitarist would perceive as an annoyance. However, Body/Head blend these sounds to mesmeric effect. And while none of their tracks have much to offer in the way of “pretty” moments, they craft sonic landscapes that are beautifully rich–in spite of the clashing frequencies.
Body/Head’s music is very ambient in tone. There are very few discernible melodies to be found within their work. In true minimalist fashion, the duo repeat harmonic motifs whilst slowly developing new layers of sound. Yet unlike more traditional renderings of minimalism (e.g. Steve Reich), No Waves lacks rhythmic rigidity, instead opting for a more free-flowing approach. Songs drone on indeterminately, captivating the listener with their amorphous form and harmonized figures. Meanwhile, the aforementioned lack of structure allows Gordon and Nace to barrage listeners’ eardrums with the same repeated guitar motifs until they eventually tire and move onto a separate thematic passage.
The improvised nature of the duo’s music makes it difficult to equivocally encapsulate their sound. Their inventive use of feedback, effects and distortion is much more effectively conveyed through live performance. However, No Waves’ live format, in theory, at least, is the perfect means of capturing the improvisational interplay that makes the duo’s music so enthralling. In practice, however, the album’s compressed audio lacks some of the dynamism and grandiosity of a live rock show. Furthermore, at only thirty-eight minutes, No Waves is merely a shell of its hour-plus predecessor, Coming Apart. Simply put, while boasting intriguing concepts and apt execution, Body/Head’s newest offering fails to achieve the ambitious scope that we have come to expect from the band. This being said, noise rock aficionados and fans of more esoteric manifestations of ambient music will undoubtedly enjoy No Waves. Kim Gordon’s singular approach to songwriting helps her music to stand out as truly unique, as she avoids any and every technique that might come off as hackneyed–or even slightly conventional.