Noise is complicated. On the one hand, it’s the backbone of rock music. It’s an agent of chaos, an element of entropy, a quick and reliable trigger of catharsis. Unfortunately, as a part of music it’s very tricky to control. For one thing, noise is singular: the more noisy a piece of music is, the more it sounds like other noisy music. The closer you get to pure noise, the closer you get to flat static.
Thinking about my favorite noisy songs, I’ve realized that I liked each because of its individual take on cacophony, but none could stand on their sound alone. The most monumental songs of noise-rock succeed not because they do noise really that much better than anyone else, but because they fuse noise’s volatility with some kind of unshakable structure. Both the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” excel and excite because they cling to rock-solid chord progressions and emotionally destructive melodies like barnacles to a cruise ship. That combination is one of the most volatile things that popular music can do.
Noise-rock bands thus orbit noise like the sun. Get too close and all life on your planet will burn off, too far away and you’ll freeze. Sonic Youth’s Sister shows a band deeply committed to getting as close to the sun as possible without dying. They come as close as it is possible to making noise into an actual structural element of rock music without dissolving into haze and boredom. Listen to Sister and you’ll hear the band fade in and out, cacophony one minute, a classic rock song in the style of Cheap Trick the next. They always, however, leave just enough tangible pop familiarity for you latch onto as the song dives into discord and takes you with it. There’s a reason people always say that Sonic Youth changed they way they think about music. In a sense, that’s what they were trying to do all along all along.