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White Light/White Heat

by The Velvet Underground

Released January 30, 1968 via Verve Records

Reviewed February 6, 2023

Top tracks (based on community voting)
Sister Ray (68%), White Light/White Heat (64%), Lady Godiva’s Operation (41%)

Perhaps best recognized for their 1967 self-titled debut (with Nico), the avant-garde extraordinaires known as The Velvet Underground are unquestionably one of rock’s most influential groups. More or less the first “art rock” band, it would take decades before retrospective examinations would give credit where it was due. While it is near-impossible to understate the impact—and sheer greatness—of the banana album, there’s something to be said about it possibly overshadowing the genius of their following records.

The band’s debut set foundations for art rock, punk, and virtually any form of rock music outside of the conventional rock n’ roll/pop rock of the time. Less than a year later, the Velvet Underground set to broaden those horizons even further with White Light/White Heat. While VU&N experimented with both softer sounds (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”as just one example) and clear dissonance (“The Black Angel’s Death Song”), their second album feels more focused in its adherence to the raw and experimental.

At just six tracks, White Light/White Heat is capped off with “Sister Ray,” which makes up roughly 17 and half minutes of the album’s full 40-minute runtime. The end result of a one-take, mostly improvised recording, the album’s closer is dominated by ten-plus minutes of Lou Reed (on guitar) and John Cale (on an organ routed through a guitar amp) exchanging percussive chords and noise. And the insanity doesn’t stop there, with Reed providing an absurd narrative that involves drag queens, heroin use, an orgy, and murder. It’s everything about The Velvet Underground cranked up beyond the max and unlike anything else being created circa 1968.

From the improvisational approach, plus the sheer chaos and dissonance of the music, to the controversial and edgy (for the time, at least) subject matter, “Sister Ray” is perhaps THE seminal noise rock/experimental rock track. And while the length of “Sister Ray” makes it the most memorable track, the same sentiment can be applied to the entirety of White Light/White Heat. From the punchy-but-melodic and lo-fi sound of the title track to the spoken-word delivery that makes up “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation,” there was always a boundary being pushed and a new hallmark of experimentation being introduced when The Velvet Underground made this album.

There are very few ways to successfully follow-up a legacy and genre-defining record. With White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground simply just created another one. – Dominick (9.5/10)

The Velvet Underground's second release, White Light/White Heat, whirls in irreverence. Warhol's forward-thinking angels pushed the boundaries of what was regarded to be “music.” Adding notches of influence in the lineage of the music tree, The Velvet Underground unknowingly paid forward for decades to come. Far more chaotic than the first release, a release which had its hand in chaotic spurts itself—take “The Black Angel's Death Song” from VU & Nico and apply it to a consistent ethos across a record. Scrips-and-scraps linger along the journey of WL/WH. Distortion and bouts of feedback line the halls. To what you constitute its purpose ultimately comes down to you, the listener. Is it necessary at all? Or is it an integral part of the soundscapes which the VU camp insist on getting in at each and every angle? It's hard to tell where to draw the line. White Light/White Heat had, and has, its fingers in many modern pies. As time goes on, said pies seem to compound and multiply ad infinitum. – Peter (9/10)

Jared: 10/10 | Dominick: 9.5/10 | Cam: 9/10 | Peter: 9/10 | Pax: 8.5/10

Community Reviews:

White Light/White Heat was made in 1967 during the height of the peace and love movement in the western world. The VU had different ideas, clashing against this violently (and loudly), they swung more towards making songs about doing speed, manslaughter, trans women being butchered, trans women and gay men being hookers, and committing murder. This album is a clash of so many different things, with the influence from free jazz is probably my favorite bit. Lou Reed was a huge fan of Ornette Coleman and would frequently see him play in NYC; you can hear Reed evoke Coleman on the track “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The use of noise and volume to move the speakers and mix everything so jammed in there. You can feel the heat of the control room from everything just at its absolute limits. White Light/White Heat is a hot record. It's a record born of anger and spite. It's the kind of record that leaves you uncomfortable and annoyed, but also engaged and intrigued. Also, c'mon, where else are you gonna get 17 minute jam about sucking on ding dongs? Both unserious and vulgar, snotty punk attitude years before the term would ever be used to describe music. White Light/White Heat is forever a classic. The last album with John Cale on the lineup and also the one with the most presence felt from him, I think he really got his avant way in with this album. – Vera Small / GorpoPap (10/10)


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