All Tomorrow’s Parties – Strange Days, London 31/12/10

New Year’s Eve is that perennial tough nut to crack. Stay in and avoid the hype or go to yet another drab house party? Going out always seems like a good idea, people are at least ‘up for it’ but then the price of everything triples for no sane reason.

When ATP announced a NYE special in September featuring a double header of Sonic Youth and Shellac and supported by New Wave veterans The Pop Group and electro-kraut nutters Factory Floor, it seemed like a no-brainer.

If that’s your kind of thing, then the New Year Eve extravaganza represented a very good deal. Four completely different takes on rock n’ roll/post-punk plus some DJs thrown in for good measure all for 40 quid.

Clearly everyone had come for only one good reason: Sonic Youth. The New Yorkers still hold considerable cache despite their best work being a generation in the past, but in spite of that, can still draw a big crowd.

First up though were Factory Floor whose relentless drum heavy style was akin to being punched in the head 50 times a second. With no hyperbole or exaggeration do I use the term ‘sonic assault’, and while their efforts were applaudable and the drumming quite incredible, the repetition leaves little for experimentation or potential longevity. Songs came and went with little variation.

Next up were The Pop Group, who announced that they were reforming last May, and this was the first of a five live shows straddling 2010 and 2011. With the recent interest in The Slits, with whom they did a split-single Where There’s a Will…. in 1980, it makes sense that perhaps they fanced a reform if only for a bit of extra cash. What seems baffling, is that given the interest in guitar bands is now on the wane why they didn’t reform earlier. Like The Slits, they fuse post-punk with dub and reggae with a political edge.

They performed a solid, if not outstanding set, calling on material from both their 1979 debut Y and the 1980 follow up For How Much Longer Will We Tolerate Mass Murder?

                                           Shellac

Shellac seemed an odd choice in many ways to this bill. Having not released anything since 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, there was no material to showcase. Yet, Shellac have curated ATP in 2002 at Camber Sands before (as have Sonic Youth), and are known to tour sporadically – both frontman Steve Albini and bassist Bob Weston are highly respected producers with Albini credited with producing the Pixies Surfer Rosa, The Breeders Pod, Nirvana’s In Utero  and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me. Such is Albini’s roll-call as a producer, it reads like whose-who of alternative and indie rock over the last 20 years. His name alone captures the imagination and sells tickets  regardless of his creative output.

Shellac were as always, solid and at times quite amazing. Their angular, awkward time signatures had some of the less well-versed audience members clapping half way through songs, and thrown by their disjointed nature.  Shellac are not cut from the usual rock n’ roll fabric. Their metallic (quite literally) sound is formed by using Travis Bean guitars and aluminium plectrums, ‘Harmonic Perculator‘ distortion pedals and special harnesses, as opposed to convential guitar straps, in which their guitars are supported.

The set encompassed songs from all four of their albums, although the fantastic 1000 Hurts  was largely ignored with the exception of ‘Squirrel Song’. Shellac are not the easiest band to listen to on record but live are quite a spectacle and very good for their money.

                                           Sonic Youth

And so it came to Sonic Youth, who sauntered out just seconds from midnight and the promise of a new year. Golden ticker tape showered the pit at the Hammersmith Apollo as Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo walked on, the epitome of Kool for 90’s indie kids, and despite their 50-something years, still embody the rebel spirit of punk rock. Having missed them in their heyday, this was something of a special moment for me. I’m still smarting from missing out on seeing Sonic Youth, Pavement and Huggy Bear as a 16 year old unable to make it to Manchester due to age, money and transport.

Sonic Youth now with Mark Ibold from Pavement (ironically), played a tight set with little break or pause – only a cursory ‘Happy New Year to you all!’ broke the rhythm as they set about bringing in 2011 in noisy fashion. But this was not the ‘Youth of Daydream Nation, Goo or Dirty or the feedback bath of Ciccone Youth or Bad Moon Rising – this was the slower, more melodic sound of the ‘Youth from the last two years.

The set borrowed heavily from last year’s The Eternal with only ‘Schizophrenia’, ‘Halloween’ and ‘Goo’ played from the classic era of Sonic Youth’s back catalogue. This was a real disappointment as even later albums such as Murray Street and Sonic Nurse contain real treasures but were overlooked. Sonic Youth have found form, albeit a maturer version of the form they had in the late 80’s and early 90’s and The Eternal is a very solid album indeed. But on a cold New Year’s Eve in London the kids wanted to throw themselves against strangers bodies to the sounds of ‘Dirty Boots’, ‘Sugar Kane’, ‘Teenage Riot’ or ‘Eric’s Trip’.

Sure, Kim teased the audience, swaggering by the moshpit (without reaching out to them) singing: “what’s it like to be a girl in a band/I don’t/quite understand” from ‘Anti-Orgasm’, and Thurston shook his blonde grunge mop like he was there to soak up the sweat of the dancing kids, and strutted with the stage presence of the demi-rock god that he is, but something was missing. We know you’ve got albums to sell, guys. But your legend in rock n roll has already been assured. At midnight on New Years Day with a belly full of booze, give us what we want.

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