Body/Head’s record label, Matador, found a strange way to bill the duo’s new concert LP. According to the PR material, “Instead of presenting ‘tracks’ or ‘songs’ from the record, we present moments from this one pinnacle set,” captured live at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, in March 2014. In other words, it’s a live album of the set that ex-Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon and avant-garde guitarist Bill Nace played that day. And there are tracks: three of them, ranging in length from almost eight minutes to just shy of 24 minutes.
Given the duo’s scant tour schedule since forming in 2012, No Waves is probably the closest that most people will come to seeing the band in concert. And because Body/Head is essentially an improvisational project focused on the instrumental interplay between Gordon and Nace, a live album is probably the best way to capture them in their element.
As you’d expect from a pair of experimentalists, their music is short on formal structure, instead emphasizing swirling guitar lines that can intersect, intertwine or clash with abrasive force. Opener “Sugar Water” begins with soft, floating parts that circle each other tentatively, then build in volume and intensity to form a chiming, staccato bed of sound over which Gordon adds wordless vocals. By the end, the guitars have locked into a chugging riff overlaid with static-y bursts that turn into a pulse that’s felt almost as much as heard. Second track “The Show Is Over” veers from a clangorous opening of brutish, droning guitars into squeals that become feedback underpinning, of all things, a soulful harmonica part that lasts for nearly a minute while the guitars seethe and twist just below.
Final track “Abstract/Actress,” the one that’s almost 24 minutes long, starts with a trebly riff accompanied by high-pitched keening. Gordon sings, her vocals a string of indistinct syllables, and the song slowly shifts into jagged bolts of guitar that pierce through grinding white noise. The track rises and falls, ebbs and flows, on its way to a late climax that sounds a lot like some kind of equipment malfunction.
Your reaction to No Waves—a titular nod to the extra-confrontational New York City punk-rock offshoot of the late-’70s—likely depends on your tolerance for passages of grinding noise and musical experimentation for its own sake. If that’s your thing, Gordon and Nace power their way through this 35-ish minute set with impressive ardor, and no shortage of ability.