Body/Head shifts quickly from dissonance to melody on sophomore album ‘The Switch’

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

From the first strums of opener “Last Time,” it is clear that Body/Head intends to move our minds to a new place altogether.

The Switch is the sophomore album from the experimental electric guitar duo composed of Kim Gordon, known for her work in Sonic Youth, and Bill Nace. The duo formed in 2012, shortly after the official disbanding of Sonic Youth.

The album is simple in its techniques. Gordon and Nace use two distorted guitars to smear 40 minutes of crackling riffs across five tracks. Occasionally, Gordon’s throaty, bold drawl hovers among the twanging strings, evoking terror and nature.

Because of the small number of component parts, the songs end up feeling tangled and minimal at the same time. Gordon and Nace are powerful but delicate performers, building and bubbling their abstract lines over the course of each meditative sonic landscape. The instrumentals are richly detailed, with carefully organized buildups.

Gordon is no stranger to experimentation, having helped transition the sound of New York from 1970s no wave to 1980s noise rock through her early releases with Sonic Youth, alongside screech-heavy bands such as Swans. In those early recordings, the tortured riffs and dissonance were nihilistic but also expressionistic, a reaction to the world and a retaliation against its pressing weight.

Running alongside this trail of rock and pop that has forayed into experimentation are truly experimental releases. Early Sonic Youth records were influenced by the alternative tuning and prepared instruments of Glenn Branca, using similar strategies to produce unorthodox, expressionistic sounds echoing the conflict and disruption that the band felt. Here, those extended drones and drawls are given an entire record on which to run reckless, without the confines of percussion or song structure.

Nace’s work has never been tied down to the structure of a regular touring schedule or the pressure to write a radio single. His extensive catalog of compositions and collaborations reveals an ego-absent approach to his own career, favoring small-press records and winding collaborations over major-label breakthroughs.

Nace’s history is evident on The Switch. Gordon and Nace play intricate vignettes of songs, with small pockets of detail that echo and emerge. The first two songs play out as wordless dialogues evoking distant landscapes and fast travel to forgotten places. The middle track, “In The Dark Room,” features a piercing and shrill guitar line that emphasizes a contrasting low hum in the distance.

But the last two tracks are where the record makes real strides. Each track unfolds into its own aggressively meditative space. On “Change My Brain” the guitar parts shift and replace each other in an organic, natural way, with a fuzzy, meandering lead effortlessly falling into a backing line for a bouncing cyclical riff. Finally, the song breaks into the closest thing to a chorus on the entire record, as the dissonant elements of the song briefly slip into harmony. Just as quickly, they taper out and fade to a close.

The joint work of these two talented guitarists emphasizes contrasting paths through the experimental music scene. Gordon, after catching the attention of music critics relatively early, has led a 40-year career in the alternative spotlight. Nace has carved a quieter image for himself, focusing on collaborations and purely sonic explorations of tone and melody through his label and other micro-labels. He has more in common with the reclusive folk of Jandek or the quietly complex experiments of modern classical music.

The album that Gordon and Nace created together revels in its own unorthodoxy, pushing grating sounds to the forefront. However, it also has great moments of aggressive calm and smashes out a sonic space for catharsis. Gordon and Nace have not decoupled themselves from the habits of their respective careers, but have toggled their energies into a unified, shapeless drawl.

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected]. Tweet him at @patricktehaney.