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A Beginner’s Guide to Noise Music

If you agree with David Novak, the author of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, then you probably believe that writing a history of noise music is inherently impossible. According to Novak, noise comes from the circulation of cultural ideas and artifacts, emerging from the accumulated meaningless debris that accompanies all forms of communication. Vinyl pops and scratches, for example, become noisy if what you want to hear is the recordings on that record. Noise music, therefore, comes from artists purposefully activating that noise. And since that noise comes from an infinite number of contexts, it’s impossible to map the history of noise music, or even to document the entire contemporary noise scene. Both, by definition, are constantly and unendingly regenerating.

I happen to agree with Novak. But I’m going to try anyways.

The following is my attempt to sketch out the contemporary noise scene and (very briefly) link this cultural space to a few foundational historical scenes and moments. At this point, it should probably go without saying that this list is in absolutely no way exhaustive. There will be a lot of bias in terms of my own history with the genre (I’m far more interested in the aggressive/loud/harsh part of the noise music spectrum) and my specific circumstances (I live in the U.S., specifically Milwaukee, so I’m far more acquainted with the U.S. scene), but hopefully this primer can initiate a few folks who are interested in noise but have no idea where to start.

Foreing Language by Can't Swim out October 11

I’ll start this guided tour by touching on a few of the historical roots of the genre, then try to show the subgenres and approaches that folks in the noise scene commonly recognize, and then finish by inventing a few categories for the misfits out there who I really enjoy.

Okay, that’s enough setup. Here is my best attempt at documenting the contemporary noise scene. Disagreeing in the comments is strongly encouraged.

JAPANOISE

The term “Japanoise” seems to have largely fallen out of use, but you can’t even begin to think about noise music without considering the Japanese noise scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Although the musicians within this scene were spread across the country and had little to no contact with each other in the beginning, they shared a common approach to dissonance, overwhelming volume/dynamic shifts, electronics, and extremity. A handful of albums on Release Entertainment, a sub label of Relapse Records, jump-started interest in the genre in the U.S. and solidified these disparate artists into a scene. And the undisputed king of this scene (at least in terms of name recognition) is Merzbow, the stage name of Masami Akita. While it’s hard to pick one release or track that defines Merzbow’s sound (since the guy has covered so much ground in the literal hundreds of albums he has recorded), the Artificial Invagination EP does a pretty good job of representing the hash dynamics of his early work. Pummeling and aggressive throughout, the sounds on this album never seem to sit in one place. At all times, at least one layer of distortion is shifting or morphing or dropping out or blasting in at full volume. And then, after 20-ish minutes, it stops with almost no warning.

 

 

Dig a little deeper past the all encompassing shadow of Merzbow and a whole host of distortion-obsessed musicians await. While artists like CCCC, The Incapacitants, K2, Government Alpha, Killer Bug, and a host of others approach noise with their own idiosyncrasies, they all push this music to some invisible extreme, erring on the side of violently loud with an overwhelming visual aesthetic. This approach also seeps into the artists’ performances: notable examples include a Hanatarash set when the artists destroyed the venue with a bulldozer and the Gerogerigegege’s inclination towards sticking weiners in vacuum cleaners. But extremities can go in multiple directions — as a counterpoint, here is an entire set by Masonna in which the artist thrashes around on stage for less than a minute while creating ear splitting feedback (since extremely short sets are still extreme in their own right).

 

POWER ELECTRONICS

Around the same time that the Japanese noise scene was kicking off, another group of artists were pushing the extremities of music in England and across Europe. Following the dissolution of industrial’s first wave (think groups like Throbbing Gristle and SPK), a number of soon-to-be-named power electronics groups picked up the torch and pushed the confrontational elements of this subversive genre to new levels. While this subgenre shared the Japanese noise scene’s obsession with extremity, power electronics manifested this obsession through a far more minimal sound and a much blunter approach to themes of violence, perversion, oppression, and victimization. Listening to Whitehouse, the founding fathers of the genre, should make this make this distinction clear. The dynamic shifts and layers of sound present in Merzbow’s approach are gone and, instead, a sharp, barely changing (and almost unlistenable) synth line fills the entire track. On top of that comes the signature vocals of William Bennett as he howls insults and threats at you, the listener. It’s an unrelenting aesthetic, but one that takes a very different tone than the parallel Japanoise approach.

 

 

Beyond Whitehouse, groups like The Grey Wolves, Con-Dom, and Sutcliffe Jugend set the tone for the early years of this movement. While the aesthetic approach to creating music shifted between groups, the fascination with serial killers, genocide, racism, sexual assault, and state violence connected these acts. Moreover, the artists also took a similarly ambiguous approach to these themes, often using fascist or oppressive signifiers in their work. As time moved on, the thematic approach broadened to include a number of different takes on how violence (as a broad social category) exists in the world. While Straight Panic’s God is the Giver of the Gift (a concept album about the myth of bug chasing) and Interracial Sex’s Forced Busing (which tackles systemic racism through the lens of formal education) both provide excellent examples of this shift, recent output from female artists working in the genre (most notably Pharmakon and Puce Mary) has utilized the aesthetic markers of power electronics toward more introspective ends. This shift redirects the violence inherent to the first wave of power electronics back on the artist and explores a wider range of themes including mental health, intoxication, and self-destruction. It’s still about power, but the question of “whose power is it?” is now being asked.

 

AMERICAN HARSH NOISE

Shortly after the start of noise in both Europe and Japan, the music travelled to the US and the styles started to mingle. The pointed approach of power electronics joined forces with the distorted wails of Japanoise and middle ground was found. The original artists who helped developed this sound, such as The Haters, Daniel Menche, and Richard Ramirez, often took an incredibly minimal approach to instrumentation: a few distortion pedals, some contact mics, and a few objects to amplify. Sometimes even less. This led to a sound that mirrored the static nature of power electronics but emerged through the white static blasts of the Japanese scene. Macronympha’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania album exemplifies this approach, with 44 minutes of amplified scrap metal pulverizing anyone willing to turn up the volume on their stereo.

As expected with any musical tradition, there are purists who would rather keep everything exactly how it is. Skin Graft, for example, has barely moved an inch from this original definition (and, frankly, I don’t want him to move any further — it’s pretty perfect as is). But there are others out there in the past quarter-century that have pushed the genre by introducing new techniques and sounds. In Dromez’s work, the static blasts of those older artists have been paired with alien synthesizers, howled vocals, moments of guitar, field recordings, and other sounds I can’t quite locate. Still, her work remains undeniably harsh and connected to previous artists.

Okay, there’s the history lesson. Now, let’s get into what’s happened since then.

CUT UP

While the last few sections painted a nice, clear picture of how this history played out, the fact is that it’s nowhere near as tidy (remember — noise comes from all circulations and from all directions). What has actually happened is that people took a bunch of different influences from a bunch of different places and made a lot of weird sounding things that sometimes converged into an approach or subgenre that held some sort of coherence. One of these subgenres/approaches is “cut up” harsh noise. To put it briefly, cut up is an approach to making harsh noise where sounds come in and out of the mix abruptly and quickly. A specific synth sound may blast through the speakers for 1/4th of a second, then be muted, then followed by white noise for half that time, which is then muted, then replaced by the sounds of metal clanking together for 1/3rd of a second, and so on for however long someone wants to play. For my money, you can’t beat Sickness when it comes to this work. There is always so much happening and so many incredible tones to work through that listening starts to sound like an archaeology dig. An exhausting one, but exciting nonetheless.

Similarly, the work of Developer builds on this cut up style by infusing this form with the techniques of musique concrete, a faction of experimental music that originated in the 1940s and focused on found-sound collage created through the splicing of tape. Rather than cutting up cassette tapes and taping them back together, Developer’s early approach to cut up involved mixing various pre-recorded sounds (mostly on micro-cassette players) by muting and unmuting channels on a large mixer. Eventually, the project combined this approach with other sound sources, but the cut up-ness of the work never changed.

 

And if you want more of this style, might I suggest …

HARSH NOISE WALL

And, of course, if you have a subgenre that goes in one direction, why wouldn’t you want to do the exact opposite? Enter Harsh Noise Wall, a subgenre (and source of endless memes) that makes music out of unchanging static drones. Gone are the jump starts and redirection of cut up, and what remains is just endless, crushing white heat. While a number of artists have pushed the conceptual backbone of harsh noise wall in different ways, Sam McKinlay of The Rita has set the aesthetic and philosophical foundation for many artists in this world. An obsessive approach to both the thematic elements (sharks, ballerinas, feet, the feet of ballerinas, and horror films make repeated appearances) and the aesthetic qualities of the music (entire albums have been constructed out of his love for the DOD Thrashmaster distortion pedal) create a framework for meditation and fixation that has remained a staple throughout the genre’s 15-ish year history. In its best moments, the craft of harsh noise wall reveals itself through the minute changes within that static. Subtle shifts slowly morph over time as certain crackles or frequencies enter and dissipate. 

Here’s one of my favorites from The Rita, which I love for just that reason.

Taking the conceptual nature of this genre to new heights, Vomir has created an entire persona and back catalogue dedicated to one idea — the void. A quick glance at his bandcamp reveals that obsession, with every single album cover being nothing but a black square. Vomir emphasizes this approach when playing live by handing out plastic bags for audience members to put over their head with the intention of blocking any/all sensory input beyond the wall of noise ripping through the PA. I’d say more, but it’s really about nothing. So how can I?

DRONE

In another moment of convergence, the ambient work of folks like Brian Eno and the experimental compositions of La Monte Young, amongst others, have collided with the noise underground and created space for drone to shine. This approach to noise shares the fascination with slowly moving sound found in harsh noise wall but does so through lush melodies, quiet textures, and low lying dynamics. Although a number of drone artists pull from more traditional musical forms (the subtle rhythms of Tim Hecker come to mind), the spectrum also extends in the opposite direction toward more disruptive ends. The ever-so-slowly-morphing synth work of Kevin Drumm provides one example, allowing the textures of each instrument to tell the story rather than the rhythm, melody, or recognizable structure of the music.

From this foundation, a number of other artists take the slowly shifting sounds inherent to drone and add layers of varying textures over the top. While Lea Bertucci’s work blends minimalism and free improvisation, tracks like “Sustain and Dissolve” off of her Metal Aether album place her saxophone work squarely within the world of drone. This points to one of the most important creative choices artists of the subgenre have to make — when to disrupt the drone, and when to let it keep rolling, to achieve the maximum effect.


NOISE ROCK

In another set of influences, noise kids listened to punk and metal bands, too. The infusion of the two led to a brand of noise rock largely separated from The Jesus Lizard and Braniac (even though some overlap remains). Ground zero for this subgenre (or, at least, one of the biggest meeting grounds) was Load Records in the early 2000s. Although bands like Lightning Bolt rose to prominence through this label largely due to their virtuosic musicianship, a whole host of others crafted pummeling rhythmic work from home made drum sets, broken guitars, and circuit bent keyboards. While debates rage about who did it best, I’ll nominate The Coughs and Nozagt as two contenders. On the one hand, The Coughs perfectly encapsulate the ferocious, ramshackle, unpolished energy of this encapsulating scene. On the other, Noxagt’s uncompromising wall of sound took this ferocity and polished it just enough to heighten the impact.

DEATH INDUSTRIAL

But what if all of these new influences are throwing you for a loop? Well, don’t worry — there are plenty of noise artists who agree. Just like fans of stoner metal who decided Black Sabbath got it right the first time and all these kids should stop messing with that winning formula, factions of the noise scene also revert back to their industrial forefathers and replicate those sounds. I’ve already mentioned that a number of artists have remained faithful to the original tenets of power electronics, but death industrial artists seem to harken back just a touch further by referencing the dronier aspects of industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle. To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time differentiating between death industrial and power electronics a lot of the time (the line is fuzzy, at best), but death industrial seems to focus more on synths and less on vocal tirades. Maybe take drone, speed it up a little, and make it a touch more foreboding? I’m not quite sure. But Brighter Death Now usually gets nominated as one of these groups, so here they are:

As a stronger example of the difference between death industrial and power electronics, Control’s work bucks the overt aggression in power electronics entirely and, instead, just sounds very spooky. Some vocals remain, but they are buried in the mix and often spoken. Small moments of industrial percussion (hammers, machines, etc.) peak through at times, and distorted walls occasionally take over. It’s a different take on power, for sure, one that remains far more subtle.

“OLD SCHOOL” INDUSTRIAL

Now let’s go back even further. Instead of existing in that moment between industrial and power electronics, what if artists just kept making industrial? And not the industrial that turned into Foetus and Nine Inch Nails, but the pissed-off kind made by Einsturzende Neubauten and Boy Dirt Car? For artists like Sewer Goddess, that seems to be the goal. Simple rhythmic structures and melodic lines rest underneath dissonant synths and howled vocals. If it wasn’t for the recording quality, this would sound right in line with that first wave.

But not all of those original recordings by the first wave of industrial artists had rhythms or melodic elements (I dare you to sing along to “Hamburger Lady”). To this end, a handful of artists working in noise also fit their work within this dissonant and droney form of industrial. Climax Denial is one such artist. The synth work of recent releases never quite reaches the fullness present in death industrial, instead opting for an aesthetic that seems to recreate a feeling of seasickness. Similarly, the vocals never quite reach the ferocity of power electronics because of their unabashed theatricality. Themes of sexual deviance also stop short of the violent and abusive tendencies inherent to power electronics and revert to a more self-deprecating and depressive stance. 

TAPE-BASED NOISE

While the previous subgenres/scenes differentiated themselves through aesthetic or thematic means, another faction of noise artists seem to define themselves through their instrumentation. Most prominent are those artists who use cassette tapes as instruments. While some artists remain content to just record sound samples on tape and then mix them, a whole other approach that manipulates tape through various physical processes also runs rampant within noise circles. Using tape loops, modified tape machines, and physically interacting with the tape as it is trying to play all lead to different sounds, and artists have harnessed those sounds to a number of ends. Covering all of these bases and more, Aaron Dilloway (former member of Wolf Eyes) has spent his entire career honing the use of tapes and other devices that enhance those approaches to tape music. With this comes a full embrace of the imperfections of tape: the warble, hiss, and inconsistencies that allow space for a voice such as his to shine.

Avoiding the various intricacies of manipulating the tapes themselves, Howard Stelzer takes an approach that focuses more on what is recorded on the tapes as opposed to engaging the medium. While the various inconsistencies of tape still play a prominent role in his work, the compositions themselves seem far more inclined towards the various recordings he puts on the tapes beforehand. This leads to delicate-yet-powerful works, which slowly grow over the entirety of an album or performance.

MODULAR SYNTH-BASED NOISE

But if you don’t want to take the cheap way out, there’s always modular synths. Prominent with all forms of electronic music, modular synths are synthesizers constructed out of individual filters, oscillators, and other devices that generate or modify synthesized sound (also known as modules … so they’re called modular synths … does that make sense?). While people who create techno and dance music have fully embraced these devices, a number of noise artists have utilized these instruments to more dissonant ends. To cover as much ground as possible, it’s worth looking at J. Soliday’s recent output. A sense of otherworldliness invests itself through moments of quiet contemplation, harsh whiplash, and everything in between. This work follows modular synthesis to its noisiest end, constantly challenging both artist and listener to guess what’s coming next and what’s making that sound in the first place. It’s a challenge that is more difficult than expected.

LAPTOP NOISE

And now to throw a landmine into the mix. For over a decade, people who listen to and make noise have been arguing over whether noise made with laptops is good or not. In large part, this debate surrounds the later output of Merzbow, who almost exclusively used a laptop between 1999 and 2009. Slowly, the approach shifted to a hybrid with his old instrumentation (mostly homebuilt instruments, junk metal, and guitar pedals). Recent reports of his set from the 2018 Hospital Productions Festival state that he has returned to the harsh noise stylings of the 90s. But that’s beyond the point. What’s important is that some people use laptops (and programs like MaxMSP, PureData, Audiomulch, and Supercollider) to make noise and some people don’t like that. This leads to some artists getting their entire creative identity stapled to that machine. While people like Pita and Marcus Schmickler often create all of their sound within these programs, others like John Wiese feed analogue instruments into their computers, process that signal, and synthesize other tones to create a rich and expansive sound. Wiese’s output covers a lot of ground, but he’s at his best in cut up. Circle Snare (which highlights his processing of a snare drum) is a great example.

In similar fashion, Andrea Pensado has built her sound around the marriage between MaxMSP patches and her voice. This leads to an unnerving style, filled with static jump scares and glossolalia outbursts that would fit right in with the most enthusiastic Pentecostal services. The result is terrifying. Pensado often kicks it up a notch in her performances. Here she is performing with a ventriloquist dummy that she modified to double as a controller for her computer.


DADA-WEIRDNESS

I’ve reached the point where I’ve run out of categories that I generally hear people talking about, so now I’m going to propose a few of my own. One thing that the previous sections do not touch on is the sense of humor that plays a role in a lot of noise music. Again, to draw a historical lineage into the conversation, the inclination towards nihilistic absurdity present within the Dada movement has definitely found a home within noise. While a popular example might be the solo work of drummer Ryosyke Kiyasu that has blown up on social media, the reigning champion in the noise underground has to be Crank Sturgeon. Wild costumes, ridiculous instruments, moments of sound poetry, and harsh blasts weave together to create an experience that is equal parts hilarious and harsh. A recent video of the Tulsa Noise Fest shows Crank wearing a toilet paper roll on his head that, if I am following the conceit, determined the length of his set (I think he stopped when the audience pulled off all the toilet paper). However, I’m going to include a video with my favorite costume of his: a giant fish head with a tube coming out the back that covers his junk. And that’s only the beginning.

While other artists such as Rubber-o-cement and ID M Theftable mirror the performative energy and wild tangents of Crank, a more subtle approach to this exists in the work Angel Marcloid. Better known for her more recent electronic project Fire Toolz, Marcloid has a deep back catalogue filled with all sorts of noise music gems. Her noisier work roots itself within circuit bent, glitchy, and otherwise broken electronics, but moments of clarity surface through a nothing-off-limits approach to sound sources. There’s just something funny about immersing an audience in electronic detritus only to shift gears and play an unaffected ukulele or cartoon sample. It also keeps the listener on their toes, making them second guess whether that actually was a ukulele or not. But even if it wasn’t, I still usually end up laughing.

NOISE THAT SOUNDS TERRIFYING AND UNCOMFORTABLE

I also want to make space for those forms of noise that aren’t totally harsh, not quite droney, and mostly just make the listener feel completely terrified and uncomfortable. I’m talking about noise that reminds me of a David Lynch movie: normally the Muppet-like monster behind the dumpster would be hilarious, but it feels totally horrifying in this context and you have no idea why. The members of the Schimpfluch-Gruppe noise collective are the masters of this approach. Both individually and together, Joke Lanz (of Sudden Infant), Dave Phillips, Daniel Löwenbrück (of Raionbashi), and Marc Zeier (of G*Park) have all created completely terrifying and unearthly albums that feel totally foreign to the rest of the noise music world. However, Rudolph Eb.er of Runzelstirn & Gurglestock has taken this approach to new heights. With performances that have involved shooting off blanks from a shotgun over the audience, repeatedly fitting a live bird into his mouth, and slamming his face into plates of spaghetti, Eb.er has developed a reputation for extreme performances. On record, his music is just as unsettling, placing what may or may not be moments of recorded self harm next to repeated screams and dogs barking that result in an affective sense of tension throughout each listen.

And even without those obvious markers of terror, there are a number of other artists whose sole purpose seems to be generating an affective response of “I shouldn’t be here, should I?” in an audience. I might be biased, as I’ve toured with the guy multiple times, but Gerritt Wittmer might be the best at this. Recent live shows have mostly involved Wittmer barely croaking out vocals over strange samples and drones while flood lamps illuminate a haunting stare from multiple angles. Nothing about this on its own sounds particularly horrifying, but I’ve seen entire rooms fill with tension and a nervous energy when these disparate parts combine. His incredible new album I Believe recreates this affect, but samples don’t exist online. Luckily, his previous album comes close:

NOISE THAT IS MADE THROUGH TERRIFYING AND UNCOMFORTABLE PROCESSES

Part of the form for many noise artists is the process of actually making sounds. For example, the work of Instinct Control sounds good, but the project is heightened by the fact that he makes all the sounds by running his hands over the circuitry of a reel-to-reel that’s plugged into the wall. I’d listen to it anyways, but the fact that the person on stage might get electrocuted and die makes the experience all the more fascinating. A faction of the noise scene seems dedicated to putting themselves through hell just to make music. I’m guessing you can imagine what a Filthy Turd set entails and Costes’ cameo as the guy screaming about putting a fist up his ass in Irreversible should also give you some clues. Justice Yeldham may be the most prolific in this realm, though, dedicating himself to using glass as an instrument. How do you play glass, you ask? Well, you shove your face into it, rub your hands all over it, and bite into it until it shatters, of course.

While the artists mentioned create noise in terrifying ways, there are also some out there who document horrifying moments as well. Best known for his power electronics work throughout the 90s, the latest Con-Dom album adds another layer by incorporating field recordings of his dying mother. Mike Dando of Con-Dom recorded the painful screams in the last days of his mother’s life as she suffered from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a disease similar to Parkinson’s that degrades a person’s mental health. Although people scream all the time on noise records, understanding why this person is screaming heightens the experience exponentially. 

NOISE THAT COMBINES MULTIPLE CATEGORIES OR DOESN’T FIT AT ALL

Like I said at the very beginning, trying to map everything that fits into a genre that ostensibly wants to push music to its very limits is impossible. As soon as someone sets up some rules to follow, someone else rolls in and breaks those rules. More often than not, people pull elements from multiple approaches, combining them in new ways to create unique and inimitable styles that form the identity of the artist. An excellent and recent example of this is the latest Pedestrian Deposit album. Classic American harsh noise, cut up, walls, drone, and ambient music all hold sway alongside cello parts informed by minimalism, electro-acoustic textures, field recordings ala musique concrete, and a number of other sources. Live, the group pushes the boundaries of performance by incorporating sculpture and theatre into their sound-making practices. Moments of this album fit into a number of the categories listed, but the entire album fits nowhere, and it’s through this melding that the album finds its true power.

And there it is. My best attempt at mapping an incredibly large and always-shifting scene. I’ll be the first to admit that I missed a lot and relied on my own biases to create this list. I’m pretty sure this list also points to some of the issues in the scene: there’s a lot of people who pull the kind of edgelord shit (or worse) you would expect in extreme music and, possibly as a result (although I suspect other reasons as well), the scene is white AF. Luckily, I’m not the only one writing about this, and others have done an incredible job of highlighting POC who engage with this scene.

But, of course, this will all change soon. The thing about communicating through cultural artifacts is that they are always circulating and, therefore, always making noise. Pretty soon, someone new is going to find that new noise and use it to challenge the veterans.