Every music fan needs a gateway drug of some sort. For a lot of people — myself included — the opener into vistas of free improvisation and experimental music was the alternate tunings, clangor, and collaboration that Sonic Youth brought to the table. From the SYR series (taking their cover art cue from EMI’s Perspectives Musicales series of 20th Century LPs) to Thurston Moore’s “Top Ten from the Free Jazz Underground” (published in Grand Royal ) and work with Paul Flaherty, Mats Gustafsson, and Evan Parker, difficult music is as much at the heart of Sonic Youth as wiry populist melody. Of the band’s four principal members, Moore’s visibility within avant-garde music has been the highest for the past couple of decades. Lee Ranaldo, like Moore an early conscript of Glenn Branca’s orchestras who explored combinations of industrial looped racket and beat poetry, isn’t talked about as much for his work outside of the band.
One ongoing and related project of late is the instrumental trio Glacial, which joins Ranaldo with drummer Tony Buck (of hyperkinetic Australian trio The Necks) and highland bagpipe/electronics artist David Watson. Although it was recorded between 2003 and 2006, On Jones Beach is their first proper full-length, consisting of the three-quarter-hour title piece (split over two sides of an LP) and three shorter improvisations. The two-part “On Friuli Island” and “On Norfolk Street” are available as downloads and seem to augment more than carry on the program, but that is not to say they aren’t valuable puzzle pieces. An excerpt of “On Jones Beach” also appeared on the limited-edition compilation Maelstrom from Drift (Three Lobed, 2008).
The blueprint for “On Jones Beach” is probably found somewhere within the early SYR records and “The Diamond Sea” (from 1995’s Washing Machine), space-defining drone building into a pummeling and flinty minimalist jam. Ranaldo, always with a wistful penchant for folk-rock songsmithery tied into his looping melodies, brings warmth to these proceedings. The last seven or so minutes of the first side find Ranaldo’s clanging harmonics set against Buck’s metronomic fills, creating a metallic but personable and organic loop reminiscent of the guitarist’s bridge slat impressionism on East Jesus (Atavistic, 1995). The side closes with Watson’s circular breathing in a haze of feedback, electronics, and dryly shimmering percussion. The second half begins with unaccompanied metal percussion (both Buck and Ranaldo), crepuscular refraction gradually shifting into near-didactic concentration as skirling bagpipes and distorted electric chunks emerge with contrasting geometric voices. Buck teases out a swinging skiffle-like beat, sallying forth with dogged energy and refusing to be drowned by the electro-acoustic sublime of pipes, pedals, and strings. The piece returns to its initial hum, keyed higher and with a sense of majesty that has emerged over the preceding several movements, as Watson and Ranaldo maintain tonal kinesis in an overlap of brilliant tendrils and curling spikes.
Building from inauspicious beginnings to powerful and compelling release and a final state of wearied, hazy relaxation, On Jones Beach is one of the strongest Sonic Youth-related “experimental” recordings in recent memory. While Lee Ranaldo might be the most recognized name within Glacial, it would be incorrect to label the trio as his vehicle, for their music springs from balanced collectivity and nuanced force. Certainly, each role in the group is tied to individual personalities, and the music of Glacial wouldn’t be what it is without this particular amalgamation of guitar, percussion, breath, and electronics. It will be interesting to see whether the work carries on, but at the very least, these recordings, the better part of a decade old, document a strong bond and fascinating vision.