Body/Head’s ‘The Switch’ Is a Cacophony for Connoisseurs

Avant-garde electric guitar duo Body/Head is the brainchild of indie icon Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, and prolific improvisational fixture Bill Nace. Their 2012 duo “Coming Apart” revisited Sonic Youth’s early days, when the band was still heavily steeped in the traditions of the short-lived No Wave movement. Their music has always been free-form and unstructured, it has evolved to grow steadily more abstract and elusive. Body/Head’s latest release, “The Switch,” is a hodgepodge of everything commonly associated with atonal music, recalling the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the trancelike drone of Indian ragas, and the tongue-in-cheek subversion of noise punk. It’s a hell of racket, guaranteed to satisfy fans of noise music, and confuse virtually everyone else.

“Last Time” is a spacious opener, in which expressive bent notes sporadically dart and dance over ringing, distorted tremolo chords and whammy bar tomfoolery. There are vague eastern tinges, and fleeting surf-rock vibes that emerge and vanish with an impressionistic casualness, until everything becomes enveloped in feedback. Gordon and Nace sculpt tones, from opposite ends, that veer in and out of focus and phase, fading the song out in a sustained meditative drone. Gordon’s vocals are the weak element in the mix, coming across as too loud, and somewhat lazy. Perhaps that’s by design, as anything goes in this type of music, but it’s awkward. “You Don’t Need” fleshes out the picture with a busier interplay of colliding, morphing drones, flickers and sputters. It’s a dark and hazy, shifting soundscape that steadily builds and engrosses you. The sparse vocals midway come in punky, half-screamed interjections, and it all dissipates into a fractured dialogue between panned static bursts.

Although the transitions between tracks are not seamless, there is a certain overall thematic cohesion. “In the Dark Room” begins with sounds that recall moments of the two previous numbers, grounding itself in the larger picture. The way evocative sounds momentarily flash from the murky mess creates a sensation something like looking through a foggy microscope. Massive, intermittent bursts of noise and blasts of distortion make this most abrasive track so far, until more drones take over and ring out to a soothing ending. By the fourth track, “Change My Brain,” far leftfield has become the center, and the atonal chaos is comfortably familiar. This noise here is some of the most colorful on the album, with jet engine bursts, and shifting tonal planes colliding amid a grainy, pixelated, buzzing extravaganza. Gordon’s singing still comes across as half-hearted, but fits more neatly into the mix. The piece sounds like a particularly unstructured and noisily indulgent moment from a Sonic Youth song isolated and stretched to its limits. The indecipherable, inconsistent nature of the sound plays with notions of positive and negative space in an exciting way. “Reverse Hard” relieves the intensity with a minimal murmur of sputtering static, until suddenly exploding into another drenched dronefest midway. Gordon’s voice is more heavily treated here, and it better fits the surrounding environment. There’s a specifically memorable moment in which a figure just recognizable enough to constitute a melody seems to simultaneously speed up and slow down, blur and sharpen. Sequences are interrupted just off-rhythm enough to throw you off, creating and relieving tension in a wild, disorienting race.

Music like this is prime for ridicule, and any enthusiasm for it might rightly seem like praise of the emperor’s new clothes. After all, it’s nothing but noise, and no amount of chin-stroking and name-dropping is going to change that. Perhaps, the joke is on you, and Body/Head are turning out utter nonsense — or worse yet, designedly poor content — to see how many fools will actually buy into it. Abstract art is always deserving of such skepticism, and occasionally ends up partially justifying it. Consider, for example, painter Mark Rothko, who said of his commissioned mural for the Four Seasons restaurant, “I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.” We can only speculate about the degree to which he was being sarcastic, but chances are that he at least partially meant it. Body/Head is rooted in the punk rock ethos, in which all things subversive are celebrated. So, it’s conceivable that the artist’s object is to make the ultimate mockery of listeners and critics alike. That said, Gordon and Nace are hardly the likeliest candidate for such a hoax. It’s generic, predictable, vapid pop music that should really conjure the emperor’s new clothes. Body/Head’s music is arguably more substantive, and certainly more original.

The latest release from Body/Head sounds like — well —the  latest release from Body/Head; anything else you hear is your own projection. It’s the auditory equivalent of a Rorschach test. Is it even music or just noise? On that note, what separates music from noise? Ultimately, it’s a matter of familiarity. If you can describe noise in recognizable terms — like melody, harmony, and rhythm — it’s music. But even your conceptions of such terms are bound by the parameters of your accepted definitions. For instance, western convention, quite arbitrarily, relies on a vocabulary of twelve notes, even though other cultures identify numerous microtones within those. A broader vocabulary would allow for a broader definition. Postmodernism might be poorly suited for practical affairs, as fools misappropriate it in attempts to defy objective reality through their fanciful refefinitions. In art, however, it’s not only useful, but necessary. Consider, for example, that Body/Head create sounds for which words do not yet exist. You have to create the words yourself, by searching for order in chaos. And with no readymade descriptors to latch on to, you’re forced to confront the sound head-on, and experience it front-and-center. Left subject to your primal instincts, in search of revelation through meditation, you’re left to receive and respond to the noise with nothing except your Body/Head.

The Switch” is available July 13 on Apple Music.