by Tom Henke
Arc is one of the most strange sidelights in Neil Young's long career of sonic experimentation. The set-up is, in this case, half the story. Young had finished the noisy, cranked sessions that resulted in Ragged Glory, and had taken Crazy Horse back out on the road for a mammoth tour, which emphasized snarling distorted Gibsons (for the first time in years). As an intriguing generational prelude, he had Sonic Youth opened the tour. Apparently, SY's Thurston Moore was talking with Young and told about a habit he had cultivated of making random, collage-type tapes out of different parts and performances from SY's tours - jigsaw puzzle tapes of noise, feedback and songs. This idea intrigued Young and he kept it in the back of his mind for later use.
When the tour was over, it was announced that a live album, Weld, was on its way. It would be packaged in a limited edition with a piece of experimental noise, as Arc-Weld. These editions proved impossible to find, but Arc did appear as its own single CD. It turned out to be, more or less, Moore's idea filtered through Young's conceptual framework. Specifically, it is a collage of extended outros from several songs on the tour, especially "Like a Hurricane" and "Love and Only Love." These songs were stretched out during the tour until their ends became freaked-out noise collisions all their own, sometimes lasting an additional five to ten minutes. Young took recordings of several of these long endings and wove them together into a 34:57 minute epic of surge and crash, splatter and hum. He was very proud of this work at the time and claimed it had a definite logical structure. This supposed structure is hard to fathom. Rather than a complete composed piece, as it seems Mr. Young viewed the document, what it appears to be is something far more oceanic - a connected series of swells and crashes leading to times of relative calm.
The piece begins with some rather random clanks of picks upon clean, undistorted electric guitar strings, then comes the sound of a plug hitting its socket - a prelude creating anticipatory tension. Quite suddenly, we are washed into a rampant distorted storm - a shriek of guitar noise, cymbals run amok, a cheap-sounding synth chord from Poncho, and this rumble-rumble-rumble shooting through it all. This is the general sound of most of the piece. Cymbal crashes, guitars, and that distinctively dense rumble of random tom toms and bass cut through most of Arc like a verse melody. At 3:07 we hit the first words, most of a verse from "Like a Hurricane." The phrase:
"Once I thought I saw you, in a crowded hazy bar / Dancin' on the light from star to star"
comes through clearly and beautifully while the rumble subsides to hum and echo. Surreal blips of noise peek through, then squeaks and burps, then a crash and a buildup into a dive bomb of feedback. This word portion of the piece serves as a coda and is repeated at ten minute intervals - at 13:00 the same verse returns and at 23:05 it is back again. Between these bits of "Hurricane" and their associated crashes, sung lines of "I want love," and "...love and only love..." appear and fade into the din like some strange bobbing memory. At times these phrases are strangely vulnerable, like a plea, and at other times they are more strident and declarative. When the noise dips to a whisper (every eight minutes or so) the crowd suddenly appears like a breath of fresh air, screaming over the top of everything, only to be deluged by the next burst of swooping whammy-bar dive bombs. Things really freak out at the very end of the piece. At around 26:34 it begins to tatter with a smash of Poncho noise, a crash and a distant echo that sounds like "Aww...I'm sorry...so sorry...," then noise and another crescendo, then back down again. There are whammy-bar swoops and noises through 28:00. At 28:30 a regular insistent bass line picks up, easy drums come behind, Neil noodles with a spacy guitar sound then gives a "Yeah!" in the background. All gets very phased and weird and the crowd comes through again for a moment. There is a cut in the sound and another crash, then more "Sorry man...sorry..." from Poncho(?). More crashes into more "Love and only love..." choruses occur, now like a mantra of strength. At 30:57 some real melody notes are played, recalling the figures from "Like a Hurricane," then finally a coda of "Take a chance, take a chance on love...," and a fade down.
It seems over, until at 32:00 there is a thrash of one chord, crashes, and a buildup to a chant of "no more pain!" Then it's off again with a shout of, "Hey mom, hey mom, I'm hungry mom!" The music gets martial again, with Neil jamming away on real notes while Poncho slams chords. The rant goes on with "Get in the car...go to the post office..." The whole thing comes to a jammy, slamming, rumbling close. There is a brief final repeat of "I want love," a distorted explosion, a couple of clear bass chords, and a fadeout - end. The overall effect is, again, mostly tidal. Noise lifts you like a wave only to smash apart. There are moments of calm, then all hell breaks loose. Drawing conclusions from this piece seems nearly impossible. Not exactly an experiment in tolerance and irritation, like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, Arc is more of an organic piece reflecting the chaos of life, or at least of electricity. The real meaning here is anyone's guess. A soundtrack for the growth of fractals? A sonic portrait of a Gulf War annihilation? Nothing at all? Arc is a strange beast. Not a piece for the casual listener, it seems only recommendable to completists and those out for a weird, joyless, difficult experience. Arc is in the end interesting, but not much fun.