Black Leather Jesus: Smacked Red
Harsh Wall Noise. The phrase itself is kind of non-sensical, like, how does a wall make noise? Oh……you mean walls of noise. People who love this niche tend to be very rigid about their opinions in forums and blogs, showing an inability to appreciate anything but Harsh Wall Noise in a way similar to crusty old metal heads who cant get over Metallica’s Master of Puppets (I frikkin’ love that record by the way).
Black Leather Jesus is one of many side projects helmed by Richard Ramirez who is himself an interesting proposition within this scene. Serial killer references aside he’s oft considered an early pioneer of America’s noise scene, fully committed to the DIY ethics of the genre’s earliest incarnations. He stands out for his commitment to subverting the noise scene’s tropes by replacing common horror related aesthetics with violent, queer S&M imagery. No fluffy handcuffs here people. He also runs his own fashion label called Richard Saenz.
So, what about Smacked Red? Well, in my mind the possibilities for noise are endless. Noise can’t have rules, because it’s very essence comes from existing outside the constraints of ‘music’. Anything can be noise. However on Smacked Red Black Leather Jesus have rejected these possibilities for five tracks of straight up mountains of well, noise. Sheer, barely climbable cliff faces of noise.
There are few variations in tone or dynamics and for me it’s all a bit…..meh. I’ve heard lots of records like this. Ten years ago it may have sounded subversive but today it sounds like a lot of other noise records out there. That said, you can hear that Smacked Red has been created by a bunch of experienced noise nerds (Ramirez collaborates with a rotating cast of terrorists under the Black Leather Jesus alias) – these walls are layered with feedback, digital scramble and decay in a way that every other bedroom noise-nik would unlikely manage. Track five, Explode a Load (lovely title!), is the standout for me with its powerful bottom end. However, if like me you’re looking for new realms in sound this is probably not the place to search for it. Fans of Ramirez and his oeuvre will likely love it.
Clu Clux Clam (2002)
Whenever my interest in Merzbow begins to wain, and I start to feel that after hearing the 50 odd Merzbow records I own that I’ve heard it all before, he comes along and surprises me.
Fantail fits into the easier-listening end of his spectrum. Not that it isn’t noisy, but it’s certainly not as harsh and aggressive as something like Pulse Demon or Venerology. Instead, we’re treated to a collection that’s based on damaged guitar playing and meditative throb. Opening track Clouds is a complete corker that kicks off with what sounds like a blown-out bass guitar and then morphs into some doomy, Boris style drone before petering out in a haze of blips and blurps. Magnificent stuff. When Merzbow puts thought into his compositions he proves himself light years ahead of his contemporaries.
Overall, Fantail crosses a much broader palette of sounds than Mr Akita usually plays with. Mountain is based on a series of higher pitched sounds, almost like running water, which dance with each other in an amazingly playful way. On Waterfall, he brings back the guitars for some more doomy drone accentuated with a ringing Black-Metal buzz, which he then destroys in an explosion of digital scree.
The distinction between each track on Fantail calls to mind Merzzow but Fantail isn’t as consistent a record. Caterpillar 2002 and the live track that closes the record, are pretty standard (although decent) Merzbow fare. Still, fans who prefer the lighter side of Merzbow, or people looking for an entry point into his massive catalogue will find plenty to like here.
Prurient: Bermuda Drain
Hydra Head (2011)
According to Bermuda Drain‘s liner notes you should “listen at night while driving through European tunnels”. I was in Japan over the new year and this record is also the perfect soundtrack for speeding around Tokyo’s freeways, winding through neon lit and smog stained skyscrapers like a scene from Bladerunner. Despite the hype leading up to this release things have gone quiet for Prurient. Critics praised Bermuda Drain for the most part, but his fans seem unsure about the goth-wave direction. This shift in sound shouldn’t come as a surprise really, given Dominick Fernow’s involvement in the synthetic emo project Cold Cave, and his increasing interest in keyboards and poetry over his last few records. And on a track like Watch Silently, where the percussive stomp sounds like a Wolf Eyes impersonation, he should be keeping the noise Nazis satisfied, but it seems the moody synths found throughout the other eight tracks are too foreign for most.
The more I listen to Bermuda Drain the more I appreciate its stark landscapes and knack for manipulating noise and atmosphere into something that almost resembles a song. Rarely has someone been able to make synth lines sound so menacing without melting in cheese. The vibe is foreboding, Fernow’s spoken prose is sparse, clear and threatening. He sounds like a man on edge, and when he erupts into gut wrenching screams, their contrast against the emotive synthesisers is unsettling. Sure, Suicide were doing something similar in the 70s but their schtick was way more inspired by blues and rock. And Alan Vega thought he was Jim Morrison. Suicide didn’t sound menacing (even if their live show was), in fact at times they almost sounded funky.
The easiest and more accurate reference point for Bermuda Drain is Horror and Action movie soundtracks of the 80s, where keyboards and drum machines provided cheap backing tracks to schlock. John Carpenter and Dario Argento are all over this and that’s probably why I can appreciate Bermuda Drain. Despite its angst and claustrophobia there is a sentimental edge to the record; nostalgia about being both repulsed and attracted to the video nasties of yore, watching something forbidden. Rooting for the monster on-screen. I like Bermuda Drain, I like it a lot. And I think the noise nerds need to ease up on Fernow for pushing his own boundaries.
Daniel Menche: Eye on the Steel
Why haven’t I written about Daniel Menche before? He’s easily the most diverse and interesting noise guy out there and Eye on the Steel has cemented his place among my favourite artists. Each of his records offers up something different to the last, he’s incredibly creative and never seems to run out of ideas.
I caught up with a friend last night that I hadn’t seen in person for a couple of years. She’s been living in Berlin and touring around Europe playing Cello in an experimental theatre company. We got talking about some of the experimental/sound art shows that she’s witnessed in basements and random venues around Berlin. She can’t wrap her head around the idea that people are interested in listening to ‘noise’. Which is interesting because she has a fondness for contemporary classical composers who throw convention right out the window.
It got me thinking about what it is that makes a noise artist interesting. The answer, of course, is subjective but attention to composition (dynamics, texture, some sense of narrative) never goes astray. Anyone can place a contact mic on a razor blade and scrape it along a length of wood to make ‘noise’, and I have to assume that it’s this sort of amateurism that my friend has been exposed to.
I’m not saying noise needs a formula, but the genre itself is at its most powerful when ‘noise’ is harnessed and sculpted into a journey that each individual experiences on his or her own.
Menche does that. Whether he’s sampling waterfalls, body parts or his own voice he’s as concerned with where each piece is going as he is with the ‘noise’ itself. It doesn’t feel like much is left to chance, although I’m sure that’s not the case. He knows how to grab your attention, where he wants to take you and how he’s going to get you there. He wants noise to affect the psyche the way that conventional music does.
If you’re new to Mr Menche, then Eye on the Steel is fantastic place for you to start. These 11 short pieces offer up the full gamut of his ouvre from Gregorian drones to layered field recordings to pulsating rhythms. An excellent entry point to his lengthier, more demanding works. This just became one of my favourite noise records, ever.
Astro Jazkamer Hair Stylistics: Motorcycle Fuck with the Ghostrider
This somewhat obscure little puppy would have to be among the most aggressive, violent noise releases out there. Recorded live in Tokyo, which adds some serious depth and dense static to the madness, this is a fucking great collaboration between cult faves Jazkamer and two Japanese noise-niks I’m not so familiar with.
I don’t often go for the whole relentless wall of noise thing but there’s something so freaking drastic about the carnage these guys amass on stage that there’s no escape. Sound-wise all the usual suspects are present, from high-pitched scree to slabs of static to blown out bass. But there’s also some great subtleties in the layers of groaning guitar, human shrieks and synthesiser damage. Apparently Lasse Marhaug is playing drums…..not that I can hear that among the din.
Listening to Motorcycle Fuck with the Ghostrider conjures up imagery of these guys tearing a stage to shreds and finishing their set covered in blood, even though I know they’re more cerebral than the likes of Wolf Eyes. Still, it’s a nice daydream. I don’t know, maybe the real appeal is that I scored this record for $5 when Missing Link was cleaning out its racks before moving premises? That and the picture of Mr T on the inside cover.
Release Entertainment (1998)
The impending release of Merzbow’s earthquake and tsunami inspired Dead Zone has got me excited about the great man again. Tauromachine has been on high rotation around these parts of late. The nineties were a great period for Merzbow as far I’m concerned, with the likes of Pulse Demon, Aqua Necromancer, 1930 and Psychorazer on offer, and Tauromachine is another fine example of his pre-millenium madness.
I’d call this Mr Akita’s techno record. Not literally of course, but there’s plenty of 4/4 throb anchoring down the scree on Tauromachine, and in a fucked up way it’s hard not to find yourself head nodding along with it. I can only imagine what would happen if some DJ slipped a cut like Minotaurus in amongst a set of Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin bangers while playing to a crowd of peaked party goers. Bad trips would most likely ensue, but it’s also possible that a handful of nutters would get swept away in swathes of fuzz and experience a noise epiphany.
Tauromachine is Merzbow at the accessible end of his spectrum, where his palette alludes to familiar sounds without actually being anything more than noise. He can be really clever like that.
Altar of Flies: Permanent Cavity
iDEAL recordings (2010)
When walking under powerlines there’s that low-range hum and gentle crackling which emanates from the wires. It comes with an intangible sense that dangerous currents are wiggling into your pores, altering your genetics. And then the fear that a bolt of electricity could erupt from overhead at any moment, a freak twist of fate collapsing the powerlines. Angry snakes of electrified wire swing down to strangle you in a whiplash of white-hot noise. This is an anxiety brought to life on the opening track of Permanent Cavity.
Altar of Flies is the moniker of Swedish drone and noise artist Mattias Gustafsson. This is his debut full-length, a collection entrenched in drone but pushing the genre to its limits in terms of dynamic and composition. Gustaffson is never complacent enough to sit on a single tone or frequency for a punishing length of time. He manipulates a baseline of gentle analogue drones and punctures them with shards of crusty feedback and debris. Tracks never finish where they started and Gustaffson is in complete control of every single journey. He uses quiet to build tension, and when only he’s ready does he unleash the screaming beast you knew was lurking in the dark all along.
At his harshest, the sound reminds me of Lasse Marhaug, while the gentler moments remind me of Wolf Eyes at their most creepy. There are moments of sea sick synthesisers that raise a toast to the more ambient moments of Sweden’s Black Metal history without falling into theatrics and cheese.
The phrase Post-Industrial comes up a lot in reviews of Altar of Flies, and while that sounds to me like some of the wank I had to deal with at art school back in the day, I think the reference to the Industrial scene of the late seventies and early eighties is important here. Because although parts of Permanent Cavity are heavily processed, there’s not much that sounds digitally cold. It’s organic and warm (and also fucking terrifying at times) and at the core of its racket lies lies a collection of human junk and hand made sound machines, all hungry and vying to eat each others souls. There’s a beautiful sense of decay about this record, a permanent cavity indeed.