No Escape Exploring Noise's Negative Lands
Published Jan 01, 2006An ominous underworld quietly, furiously exists. Something like faint panting sounds, perhaps the effort of some dilapidated creature, as a rhythmic grind and shuffle churns factory-like. This is a barren and frightening land we have been thrown into.
A deafeningly assaulting squeal is like an electrically charged sky splitting open. But it isn't cleansing rain that follows, quite the opposite: a torrid wall of harsh electronic flames bursts forth and lays everything before it to waste. The ferocious cries of an entire multitude rise up as they burn in the noise, spitting and sputtering their sufferings as their very souls diminish to ash.
No, this is not the audio broadcast of the Chernobyl disaster going down it's "Dead in a Boat," the opening cut from Wolf Eyes' latest album and Sub Pop debut, Burned Mind, a charred masterpiece made special due to it being the first ever harsh noise / power electronics album to even flirt with pop standards. The band themselves would throw beer cans at the thought, but there it is Burned Mind is a tour-de-force of pummel, an uncompromising attack on the very idea of the pop album unpredictable, relentlessly challenging and really, really fucking angry.
Uncompromising attacks are what Wolf Eyes (and America's flourishing harsh noise scene) are all about. This is music that dares you to appreciate it, tries its damnedest to alienate you from it and then spits in the face of your admiration.
Suitably, the Ann Arbour, MI-based trio of Nate Young, Aaron Dilloway and John Olson have an approach to doing interviews that's quite similar to their music. By condemning journalists to a speakerphone while the three of them brazen their guest with ridicule and refuse to answer written questions ("Take all your serious questions and put them in a shredder!" yells Olson), they seem as difficult in person as their music is on stage.
But with a little friendly conversation ("New York totally smells, man. There's garbage out on the streets and a bunch of annoying fucking people always in your face. I'd rather go sit out in my clean backyard," says Olson), some tolerance for wandering topics ("People in Finland get maggot face massages all the time. It cleans out their pores," says Olson. "Maggot is like a Big Mac in Zimbabwe. Might be in Toronto, too" chips in Young) and a whole lot of patience and persistence, I was able to snag a tad of insight into exactly where in hell Wolf Eyes are coming from.
Basically, they don't give a fuck what anyone else is doing, unless it's really intense. They're out for the thrill and sheer fucking excitement of blowing away their audiences and making it as painful as humanly possible to appreciate what they do. And they love Degrassi Junior High. A lot.
What else do Wolf Eyes dig? "Third Eye Blind: awesome. Sugar Ray: awesome. Smash Mouth are fucking awesome! Try to be in a bad mood when you listen to Smash Mouth. You can't! Seriously, that puts a grin on your fucking chagrin," insisted Olson. But then one of them, was it Young or Dilloway, mentioned the Texas Chainsaw Massacre soundtrack ("The new one!" teases Olson), early Butthole Surfers, the Exploited and "tenth generation Misfits bootlegs" as providing some level of inspiration for what they do.
As for live shows, founder Nate Young says, "The best shows are when we're playing to a bunch of friends and they keep giving us shit the entire time, like pushing us and throwing beer on us. Those are the most fun."
"Especially when one of Dilloway's hands are broken," adds Olson, who infamously smacked himself in the face while swinging a spiked mace during a performance in Minneapolis this July. A trip to the emergency room was imminent.
"Yeah, it felt good. Kinda. There was blood everywhere. There were a bunch of flies in my setup for the next week and a half. Opening up my case every night was totally gross."
"Pretty cool, though," chips in Dilloway.
"Yeah. Cool. Totally," agrees Olson sarcastically.
But don't let Wolf Eyes' fucked up demeanours mislead you into believing these guys are idiots, because idiots don't make music that will cause their grandkids to shit their pants.
"We're totally into making our own [equipment]," says Nate Young, the group's founder. "Last night we jammed and mostly we played with saxophone and metal, so as far as our gear's concerned we play whatever we feel like picking up. It's not so organised. It used to be like, We have to play these jams,' but not anymore. Sometimes Dilloway's playing shit and I think it's me."
With over 75 drastically different self-released records, cassettes and CD-R's put out through Dilloway's Hanson Records and Olson's American Tapes, as well as a handful of more substantially funded and distributed assaults (of which Dread on Bulb and Dead Hills on Troubleman are the most mind-shattering) have reached the streets since their self-titled debut for Bulb in 1999, Wolf Eyes' recorded output is as frustrating and infuriating to collect as it sounds.
However, it's this spirit of exclusivity and self-condemnation from the trappings of music's commerciality that has inspired an alarming amount of modern noise acts to emerge throughout North America over the past few years.
The infamous Michigan scene Wolf Eyes emerged from boasts a significant number of respected noise acts, like Nautical Almanac, Sick Llama, Dead Machines and Concrete, but there's hardly a city, town or borough across this huge continent that some knob-twisting noise-monger doesn't call home. Canada has its fair share of deathly squall: Brian Ruryk, Knurl, Gastric Female Reflex, Ames Sanglantes, Koryphaia and Shit Cook. And the numbers are growing by the day.
To pick three groups on which to focus amidst so many noise acts might seem absurd, but if there are three current acts who can rival Wolf Eyes for providing sheer heart attack potential with the will to combine their beloved noise with elements of other musical forms, they are Sightings, Hair Police and Yellow Swans.
"When Hair Police started out, we didn't know what the fuck we were doing. We just fucking wanted to get crazy and just fucking go nuts," says guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Connelly. "Now we're way more interested in, instead of blowing people over by jumping in the crowd, blowing people over with the tunes we make. I look back at the old shows now, and I can't really watch them because I think where we're at now is way more exciting."
Hair Police recently toured North America with Sonic Youth and received wildly mixed reactions from their visceral live shows. Regardless, this trio (who combine rock instrumentation with harsh electronics) have come a long way from their beginnings in Lexington, Kentucky in 2001, and are more concerned these days with composing 12-minutes excursions than 30-second sonic blasts, a development captured on their forthcoming release for Troubleman, Constantly Terrified.
"Pedestrian Deposit out of California, he's incredible," recommends Connelly. "But other than that a lot of the new harsh noise shit is just absolutely boring and horrible, so I think for me I'm getting more into underground sound. Acid-folk, free jazz... You know, psych music."
Portland, Oregon's Yellow Swans are also no strangers to the realms of psychedelia. Their first widely distributed album, Bring the Neon War Home, was recently released on Narnack and perfectly captures this duo's disposition for walls of noise and slamming beats, but like most noise acts, they have self-released a slew of strictly limited edition records and CD-R's through their label, Jyrk. Since forming in 2001, members Peter Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman have found themselves exploring the spiritual sides of their noise.
"I like enormous bass and ear-shattering treble. It all sounds beautiful to me," says Swanson. "The high end sounds like your nervous system and the low end is your circulatory system heart and brain running at the same time. I usually feel like I'm moving through physical spaces when we're playing, moving through different environments. It's as much about the physical experience as the auditory."
"I've always been fascinated by feedback and non-musical sounds,'" says Saloman. "As a little kid I would create strobing sound-gates by pushing my fingers in and out of my ears really fast. I think I've always been fascinated by the strange sounds, the uncomfortable sounds, the bad sounds. Yellow Swans really represents my giving in to that world of sound, as opposed to my previous groups, which were attempts to reconcile that world with the world of pop music."
Saloman's self-awareness concerning the reasons why he produces such abrasive music is further expression of what makes noise lovers love noise: it's about riling against the norm, exploring the obscure and difficult simply because music's less challenging regions leave them feeling unfulfilled.
"[Our music] is meant to be a demonstration of freedom," continues Saloman. "In my mind freedom is equated with the ability to imagine new possibility. A society that believes everything has been accomplished, that there is nothing new or unknown, is imprisoned inside of itself. Imagination and exploration are directly related to a feeling of freedom. It is my ideal that our music can be a demonstration of some of the wealth of unknown potential and mystery that still exists in the world, and thus encourages others to seek it out themselves. My great hope is that noise music could be a fundamentally liberating art."
New York City trio Sightings (whose latest, Arrived in Gold, drops this month on Load) could certainly vouch for the liberating qualities of noise: the trio, who formed in 1997, consider themselves a rock band bent on escaping the retro trappings of metal and hardcore.
"We just make sounds we like. A lot of [what inspires us to make noise] is more musician-oriented issues like not playing your instrument in a traditional way," says bassist Richard Hoffman. "If you aren't going to play your guitar with chords or scales, you're probably going to make something that is noisy to most ears. As a player, I can't imagine doing anything else, because so many styles seem really played out. Rock allows you to take elements of every style and do your own thing. I like visceral music, so that's where the noise comes in. [I love] the way [90s harsh noise act] Harry Pussy records just shoot your adrenaline up the minute the music starts."
Hoffman admits that achieving the punishing sound of Sightings' albums in a live setting would be next to impossible. "Our instrumental sound can be fucked up, but what you're hearing [on record] is tape distortion at every level. That's the secret. I just try to mix it in some coherent fashion. It's more about muscle and mood [on stage]. With the four-track mixing, I just abandoned ideas like everyone's part needs to be heard, or instruments need to sound right,' and turned the channels into fields of noise to be mixed into some washy symphony. Once, after I mixed the version of Feel Like a Porsche' that's on Michigan Haters, I listened to "Persepolis" by [20th century composer] Xenakis and thought, This is what I'm trying to do.' Sounds stupid, but it is sort of true."
Hoffman's comparison isn't as far off the mark as he might think. In fact, one can trace the roots of noise music to a notorious date in music history: May 29, 1913, the day Les Ballets Russes staged the premiere ballet performance of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (or The Rite of Spring) in Paris. An intensely rhythmic and beautifully disturbing ballet, Le Sacre's unconventionally complex score and bare-bones scenario (a series of scenes from pagan Russia), accentuated by the dancer's violent steps (depicting fertility rites), at first drew whistles and catcalls from the audience, which were quickly followed by shouts and fistfights. A full-scale riot soon erupted and the Paris police were called in, but even they were unable to restore order.
Cutting-edge conductor Pierre Boulez once wrote that "Stravinsky changed the direction of rhythmic impulse." Simply speaking, The Rite of Spring shook conventions and paved a new way for all modern music to come. (Just try to tell me you can't hear glimmers of Wolf Eyes in its most intense moments.) This piece signalled the end of classical music's Romantic period and effectively broke through the barriers that Stravinsky and his contemporaries (Bartok, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, et. al) had been pacing around with revolutionary intent for some time, an occasion most provocatively hinted at by Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, first performed in 1912.
With the wall of convention knocked down, a swarm of modern composers hell-bent on exploring the uncharted land beyond it emerged Varese (who first flirted with electronic compositions during the 30s), Penderecki, Ligetti and Xenakis are notables among the many who escalated the classical approach to incredibly frightening extremes.
But it wasn't until the 50s began bleeding into the 60s that two key figures emerged who further tested the limits of what is considered music and what is noise namely Karlheinz Stockhausen and Ornette Coleman, who respectively introduced purely electronic composition (in 1956 with "Gesang der Junglinge," or "Voices of Children," a composition for tapes and treble) and free jazz (with the 1961 album Free Jazz, which boasts a separate quartet wailing in each channel) to universal consciousness.
Thanks to Stockhausen and Coleman, the 60s were a far freer place, where figures like LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Terry Riley could turn their dreams into drones, John Cage and Michael Snow could consider silence and chance for all eternity, Sun Ra, John Coltrane and AMM could become one with the infinite omniverse and the Velvet Underground and Can could incorporate all of these ideas into a digestible rock-based stew. Hell, even John Lennon and George Harrison put out entire albums exploring sound-sources such as radio dials and Moog synthesisers.
It was a beautifully noisy time, and at the centre of it all was the 1965 formation of London, ON's the Nihilist Spasm Band, a collective who perform on homemade acoustic instruments and have been emitting every squeal and creak imaginable since. The Spasm Band still performs every Monday night in London (they have for over 30 years now) and is generally considered the first noise group.
However, if one were to select a single year for the birth of straight-up electronically-produced harsh noise as an art form, it would have to be 1975, the year Lou Reed flashed the entire musical world his bony middle finger with a double-album called Metal Machine Music, and two now-legendary acts commenced recording, Throbbing Gristle and Boyd Rice.
Metal Machine Music snuck up on buyers like a profound, unannounced rip-off. Following hot on the heels of two similarly designed Lou Reed live albums, many fans bought Metal Machine Music assuming it would be filled with standard live material. Boy, were they wrong. What they got for their money was four 16-minute sides of shrill ringing and head-splitting feedback. Reed himself has been quoted as saying he's never heard the whole album through.
To create it, Reed assembled a studio full of amps, preamps, monitors, distortion pedals, tremolo units and modulators (the liner notes point out the lack of actual instruments), wired them together, cranked everything to full blast, pressed record, flicked the switch that brought his musical Frankenstein to life and eventually left the room. The results are like a ringing symphony of migraines, a confounding sound document that plays tricks on the listener's senses. Needless to say, most copies of the album were promptly returned to their point of purchase. But some decidedly extreme folks listened to and loved it. Noise appreciation was born.
Among those who could adore such squall were the four members of Throbbing Gristle (Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson), a performance-based troupe of confrontational subverts who, through their grating and intense music, explored all things taboo child pornography, mass murder, concentration camps. TG left no stone unturned when it came to shocking their audiences, and by doing so have come to be considered the Beatles of industrial music, a phrase they coined with their private record-and-tapes label (Industrial Records) and motto ("industrial music for industrial people").
It wasn't long until an entire industrial community had grown up around Throbbing Gristle's not-so-quaint English setting, one that included such key players as Cabaret Voltaire, SPK and Monte Cazazza. Stateside, New York had its own abrasive equivalent in the more punk-inspired No Wave scene, where bands like Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks tested the limits of both their audience's listening potential and their own admittedly amateurish talents. And, on the outsider tip, Portland, Oregon's Smegma (who formed in Los Angeles in 1973 but didn't begin recording for a few years, by which time they'd relocated to Portland) and London, England's enigmatic collagist Nurse With Wound were both beginning the exploratory careers they're still immersed in to this day.
But amidst so much lovely racket, San Francisco resident Boyd Rice (a.k.a. Non) was single-handedly pushing music in his own uniquely evil direction by self-pressing a series of seven-inch records (many of them featuring multiple spindle holes for "multi-axial rotation") that punished listeners with endless loops of grating noise. His live shows weren't exactly a stroll in the park, either. San Franciscans, New Yorkers and Europeans all hated him, but Genesis P-Orridge simply adored him.
"I loved Boyd Rice when he came to London for the first time. He sent me stuff in the mail, too," recalls P-Orridge. "I got him a gig at the London Filmmaker's Co-op, I thought it was so fantastic. I brought Daniel Miller from Mute to see it and [Rice] got signed to Mute that day. I was with Monte Cazazza, he was living with me at that time, and Monte and I were both just smiling the whole way through. Monte turned to me and said, This is the best dance music I've ever heard.' And I knew exactly what he meant it was so physical."
By 1981 the first wave of industrial music had pretty much run itself dry; Throbbing Gristle had terminated their mission and many of its originators had moved into more synth-infatuated and less abrasive zones. But as one creative movement dies, another is always born, and it was this year that England's William Bennett released an album called Erector with his band Whitehouse that would single-handedly create a new genre, dubbed "power electronics."
Backed by two fellows and a plethora of noise-making gear, Bennett and Whitehouse set a new standard for extreme music by shrieking about controversial subjects such as serial killers (a theme fully explored on the particularly murderous Dedicated to Peter Kurten) and sexual violence (Japanese S&M imagery is a cover-art favourite) overtop abrasive walls of high and low frequencies.
Also around this time, harsh noise bands like the Haters, the New Blockaders and Boy Dirt Car were beginning to march forth with their respective torches, the increasingly prolific RRRecords had begun its steady stream of releases, and the Japanese were taking up similar methods of abrasive and violent expression as Whitehouse so gregariously demonstrated. But as the 80s wore on, a Japanese man named Masami Akita was finally beginning to gain the world's recognition for the relentless recordings he'd been self-releasing and constantly refining since 1979.
Masami Akita, or Merzbow as he's commonly known, is undoubtedly the true reigning king of noise. No one before or since has pushed sound to such aurally assaulting lengths, and it's difficult to feasibly imagine how it could possibly go further.
"Merzbow took an element of post-industrial thought about sound, ran with it and created something very dynamic, pristine and pure," says Genesis P-Orridge. "It's also very, very modern a non-linguistic language, if you can say that."
Such key Merzbow releases as 1996's Pulse Demon and 1998's 1930 are among the most intense recordings ever set to tape, and the release of his fabled Merzbox (a 50-CD set housed in solid steel and wrapped in shrunken leather) in 2000 marked the occasion of the most prolific chronicling of noise music in history.
Akita recalls his early days of experimenting and how they shaped the artist he has since become. "In the late 70s, after years of experimenting with free rock improvisation, I was influenced by the philosophy of dada and surrealist art and literature to think about music more conceptually," recounts Akita. "What I learned from contemporary artists, neo-dadaists, Marcel Duchamps and so on is that art is totally free and I could do anything. In this same period, the punk movement came about, which lead my interests away from old rock. I started making my own music using cheap cassette recorders, condenser mics and effects pedals. I made tapes that were kind of like a cheap, punk version of musique concrète. I made recordings of almost everything in my room the sound of TV, radio, outside sounds coming through my window, paper, dishes in my kitchen, water, the floor. I then distorted and mutilated these sounds by using overdrive distortion and a frequency analyser. But there is no special key influence in my music. The days of life are my influence, days spent listening and thinking."
As always, Merzbow continues to incorporate new depths to his music. "Nowadays I'm more interested in using straight rhythms than before. I've been trying to inject some heavy ambient dub essence into my recent works, and I think it's gone well," says Akita. "My most recent works also tend to reflect certain images and feelings I have, and are particularly connected with ideas concerning animals and animal rights. I'm trying to represent my feelings of sadness and hatred toward human culture's abusive treatment of animals."
So does the certified king of noise, and perhaps most other noise-mongers in general, possess a personality as extreme as his music? "Personality, no. Way of thinking, yes."
Diary of a Noise Fiend
Became enamoured by those intense moments during Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner." Swear I saw stars. Feel somehow charged.
Found myself really, really digging the Sonics' first two albums, the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat and the Stooges. Feel real cool, but edgy. Short-tempered.
Was introduced to early Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca and the Dead C through a friend. Perspective changed. Been walking about in a daze, as though hypnotised, by something.
Been craving more intense and angry groups, stuff like Suicide, Mars, Chrome and DNA. Reckless lately. Snapped at a grocery store clerk for looking at my army fatigues.
No wave and Suicide aren't cutting it. Blaring Harry Pussy, the Haters and the New Blockaders day in, day out. Neighbour told me I have a problem. I punched him in the face.
Trying to hear everything Throbbing Gristle ever recorded. Staying in a lot. Sleeping less.
Discovered Wolf Eyes. Not sleeping at all.
Find myself swaying to early Cabaret Voltaire and Whitehouse most days. Sweating a lot. Shivering, always cold.
Dancing full throttle to Viki, Yellow Swans and Mammal every night. Rocking hard to Sightings, Air Conditioning and Hair Police all day. Unsure how many random strangers I've beaten lately.
Stealing credit cards to support my habit of limited pressing vinyl, CD-R's and cassettes. Feel paranoid, sure I'm being followed.
Old friend told me I'm a shadow of my former self, recommended professional help. I turned up the Merzbow and pointed to the door.
Was found wandering alleys in a daze, clutching my copy of Metal Machine Music, screeching unintelligible frequencies and assaulting anyone who crossed my path. Judge sentenced me to six months of solitary ABBA.