Merzbow / Holzkopf & Botfly / Bitter Fictions The Palomino Smokehouse, Calgary AB, May 22

Merzbow / Holzkopf & Botfly / Bitter Fictions The Palomino Smokehouse, Calgary AB, May 22
Photo: Sarah Kitteringham
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Noise thrives on improvisation and inconsistency; even the commercially successful acts with noise integrations, like the wildly different from one another Animal Collective and Swans, perform live sets that vaguely resemble their albums, instead of choosing to experiment and diverge. For a rabid fan who enjoys singing or air drumming along, this can be extremely frustrating; for others, it's thrilling. Throw that in with extreme volume and you've got the basis of Japanese noise godfather Merzbow, whose discography is reported to surpass 350 recordings, making playing recorded tracks somewhat moot regardless. Instead, you go along for the teeth-chattering, abrasive ride, and hope you remember your earplugs.

Upon entry to the Palomino Smokehouse, it became evident the night would be strange. For the first time in this writer's life, bouncers were asking if attendees had earplugs. Once we descended to the basement, the stage was covered in ratty modulators and bizarre cymbals; a discarded set list lay on the floor. Among numerous other tracks was "Stab the Cat." What sounded like a jazzy Swans track was blaring from the speakers.

It was then that one-man noise project Bitter Fictions sauntered on stage. The Calgary-based musician opted for a gentle set with hazy night undulating sounds, oddly reminiscent at times of Drums and Guns-era Low. Clad in red and black-striped socks, he proceeded to abuse the necks of two guitars by thrusting one into an amp. The other became a makeshift violin when a drumstick was pushed through the strings high up the neck; another stick became a bow, manipulating the resonance. Met by a silent, appreciative crowd, Bitter Fictions was understated, only stopping to say thank you and to acknowledge what would have been cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra's 100th birthday. It induced many giggles when he quipped, "Because of his birthday, no one was talking about Morrissey's birthday. So even in death, he keeps giving."

Vancouver's Holzkopf and Botfly were up next, and immediately the show took a turn for the weird(er). Guitarist and noise manipulator Holzkopf was adorned in zebra tights, short shorts, and a side ponytail to complement his massive, shaggy beard; drummer Botfly was inconspicuous, focusing his energy on his kit. He placed bell cymbals on his snare to jackhammer; his feet pummelled the bass drum. Strange, ugly noises emanated from every speaker, and the music morphed from devastatingly heavy trance to sensual and jazzy. The air was buzzing with the sheer volume, and when their very short and sweet set ended, it was clear everyone wanted more.

As clocks stretched past midnight, Merzbow began. With his infamous "Meat is Murder" sticker perched on his computer, his set was so dissonant, the sound so loud and enveloping, it began triggering ugly memories. His table was covered in pedals, and he manipulated those and his makeshift instrument in tandem. Looking like an oddly improvised classical Japanese instrument made with pieces salvaged from a junk yard, the three-stringed apparatus squealed and screamed; Merzbow hit the strings with a salvaged metal chunk that resembled guitar pickups.

It was a crushing set of undulating waves of hostile, cold, mechanic noise that pulverized eardrums, played by a noise master in peak form.