If anyone thought Sonic Youth were getting a little too comfortable, The Eternal proved they weren't afraid of change, even as they closed in on 30 years of making music together. The Eternal is Sonic Youth's first album for legendary indie label Matador Records after a nearly 20-year stint with Geffen Records, which dovetails nicely with the fact that this is also the band's first album with former Pavement bassist (and Matador alum) Mark Ibold. Sonic Youth even changed their usual songwriting approach, writing and recording tracks in quick batches instead of planning an entire song cycle at once. Dust wasn't allowed to settle on these songs, nor could it -- the most striking thing about The Eternal is how hard it rocks. The contemplative haze that drifted over Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and to a lesser extent Rather Ripped is blasted away by opening track "Sacred Trickster"'s lunging, massive guitars and Kim Gordon's demand to be pressed up against an amp. The rest of the band sounds revitalized, too: Lee Ranaldo's excellent "What We Know" is a furious yet complex rocker, and Thurston Moore sounds like the leader of the gang on "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn," which name-drops the Heaven's Gate cult and the alias of Germs singer Darby Crash between its "whoa-oh" and "yeah yeah"-fueled choruses. This is the heaviest Sonic Youth have been since Sister, and it's fitting that their return to the indie world touches on their SST days. That's not the only era they revisit, however. "Poison Arrow"'s skronky grind evokes Dirty's sexier moments; "Antenna"'s radio love turns Murray Street's sun-streaked drones into epic pop; and "Calming the Snake"'s tumbling, atonal riffing suggests summery menace as much as it does Sonic Youth's no wave roots.
While there's a little bit of almost everything that has made Sonic Youth great over the years, the band hasn't put these elements together in precisely this way before. Considering how expansive their last few albums for Geffen were, The Eternal's relatively concise songs also set it apart, but when Sonic Youth do stretch out, it's with purpose. "Anti-Orgasm" begins as a duet/duel between Gordon and Moore, who trade challenges and come-ons over free-falling guitars that become a rolling, slow-motion excursion; the track's instrumental interplay is more violent, and more sensual, than its words. "Massage the History" is even more vast, encompassing fragile acoustic strumming, distortion storms, and dead calm over its nearly ten-minute expanse. While The Eternal doesn't flow quite as effortlessly as some Sonic Youth albums, it's perfectly balanced, its raw moments tempered by the subtle "Walkin Blue" and "Malibu Gas Station," which creeps so imperceptibly toward its raging guitars that they're almost unnoticed until you're caught in their undercurrent. Sonic Youth's freedom to follow their bliss is what holds The Eternal together; just as paradoxically, the changes they make on this album not only bring excitement to their music, they reaffirm just how consistently good the band has been -- and continues to be -- over the years.