Category Archives: Merzbow

Digging: Merzbow – Fantail

Merzbow: Fantail
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.

New release: Merzbow – Dead Zone

Merzbow: Dead Zone
(Quasi Pop) 2011

If you didn’t know that Dead Zone was Merzbow’s aural response to the natural and man made disasters which devastated parts of Japan earlier this year, you won’t be enlightened upon listening to it. Even despite the haunting cover art from Chernobyl Dead Zone doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but the devil is in the detail.

Merzbow has always been about the detail. The joy of listening to him comes from drawing out the sound sources, finding snippets that you are able to identify with and latch on to. Making sense of the madness. And for listeners who go into Dead Zone with some background knowledge there is plenty that you can read into. Like the ten minute marks in both The Blade of Oblivion and The Spirit Indulges in the Sadness (Merzbow’s most sombre title ever?) where that theremin sound he’s been into lately comes off like a Geiger Counter lost in the fall out.

Throughout Dead Zone Akita’s favourite sounds take on new meanings – crunchy metallic noise stands in for crumbling buildings, whooshing static becomes the roar of a twenty foot wave, buzzes and whirs sound like melting nuclear reactors. Of course, this is all just me projecting my own pre-conceived notions of what Dead Zone should and does sound like. It’s just me trying to make sense of what is essentially non sensical. The beauty of Merzbow is that another listener won’t hear any of this in Dead Zone’s dense and evolving palette.

And this is definitely a dense listen. I’d place it in the harsher, and less penetrable realms of his work. But it’s also kind of beautiful in its own ugly way. And that might just say more about me than Dead Zone.

Digging: Merzbow – Tauromachine

Merzbow: Tauromachine
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.

Merzbow Marathon: Pulse Demon

Merzbow Marathon: Pulse Demon
Release Entertainment (1996)

Pulse Demon has a reputation. Apparently one of the most over compressed recordings ever, specifically engineered for extreme intensity. Yowzer! Pulse Demon is like a forbidden fruit.

I’ve had this record on my shelf for more than twelve months now, and the idea of listening to it has always filled me with dread. I assumed it was going to be a real slog to listen to. I’d bought into the fucked up mythology. But what better time to give it a crack than the tail end of my month long Merzbow Marathon, while my brain is a pile of miscellaneous sludge and I‘m starting to yearn for a listening experience outside of Mr Akita’s formless world. The time seemed right.

However, as Public Enemy once said “Don’t believe the hype”. Pulse Demon isn’t the terrifying monster it’s often painted as. Sure, it’s relentless and loud, so fucking loud, and it has few bearing points but it’s also a crystal clear recording, a high definition digital bloom rather than a gassy cloud of pollution. And with five of its eight tracks coming in under the six minute mark (and only one extending past eleven minutes) it’s also fairly easy to digest. I like it when Merzbow gives me easily digestible chunks. I’m piss weak like that.

Maybe I enjoy Pulse Demon because I’ve heard so much Merzbow this month that my ear has become better attuned to his intricacies. Maybe it’s because I realised that there’s little to understand about Merzbow; when his stars align all you need to do is relax and go along for the ride.

This record is 70+ minutes long, but I’m yet to notice this when listening to it. That’s possibly because of the easily digestible chunks I mentioned above. But it also has to do with the playfulness it exudes, like the trip-hoppy rhythm that holds Tokyo Times Ten together, or the Kevin Drumm inspired drone that veers from left to right speaker on Worms Plastic Earthbound and then decays into bleak fuzz. Or Spiral Blast, one of the best Merzbow tracks I’ve heard yet, based on a bottomed-out buzz that sounds like an engine revving itself up and changing gears over and over until it folds in on itself and then jams like a CD stammering  on a deep scratch.

The moral of this story is don’t judge a book by its Op Art cover.

Merzbow Marathon: Hodosan

Merzbow: Hodosan
Vivo (2008)

This is about drums. More than that, it’s about Merzbow getting all sentimental about his days as drummer in Japan’s prog/psych rock scene of the 70s. Hodosan is one giant drum solo with some noise thrown over the top as an after thought.

When Merzbow gets all crazy on his drum kit, I get all “meh”. I’m sure he’s having a blast belting the crap out of his skins, putting down endless drum rolls and smashing a cymbal every other second, but for me it’s all a bit of yawn. There’s something very anti-noise about the records Mr. Akita makes of this nature. Yeah sure you could trace Hodosan’s inspiration back to free-jazz/avant-jazz, but there’s something so Rock n’ Roll Establishment about a drum solo. Listening to Hodosan (and some of those ’13 Japanese Birds’ records, among others) makes me feel like I’m watching some hair metal band. I can see Tommy Lee in his leather G-string pounding away while his drum kit rises off the stage and starts doing 360s.

Maybe I’m missing the joke here? I can’t begrudge Merzbow for making records like this occasionally. He seems to take himself so seriously most of the time, and you know, he’s got this whole ‘king of noise’ crown to bear so you can’t blame the guy for wanting to let his hair down occasionally. Shame it’s so boring when he does.

Merzbow Marathon: F.I.D.

Merzbow: F.I.D.
Fourth Dimension Records (2006)

For me, the stand-out Merzbow records are those where Mr. Akita plays with a varied palette. The six tracks that make up this two-disc set are among his most diverse rackets. And, on the whole it’s an absolute cracker.

As first cab of the rank, Exteriorization?@no. 1 is fairly standard Merzbow fare made up of a bubbly drone and warped shrieks of feedback. Forest of Kelp is where shit gets interesting. It starts with a mid-range buzz, that sound you hear when walking underneath power lines, and some subtle, shifting static. Then something totally un-Merzbow happens. The buzz and static disappear, leaving a quiet ringing sound and some ultra reverbed laser zaps. The vibe is cavernous despite being so minimal and it sucks you into the abyss, falling endlessly. Mr. Akita continues drowning his noise in reverb and delay for twenty minutes, and for me it never gets boring. Not once. This is the subtlety I wanted to hear him explore further after listening to Keio Line. I didn’t think I’d get my wish so soon.

The opening track on disc two surprises us by gently fading away rather than ending abruptly like most of Merzbow’s work does. Meanwhile, Transition is potentially the most minimalistic thing I’ve ever heard Merzbow do. It’s like John Weise with the dial turned down to one. A bunch of skittery blips, squeaks and sound recordings played in fast forward, all of it incredibly soft and delicate, which is a soothing experience despite the schizo madness of the sound collage. I want more of this Merzbow, please!

Rest assured we’re also treated to plenty of skin shredding throbs, scree and terror. Set closer Kongara sounds like a disco for rejected replicants. It pulses like techno and shrieks like Black Metal until the 4/4 ‘beat’ starts to warp like a rip in the fabric of time. These frenetic, more traditional Merzbow moments become that much more powerful alongside the restrained moments outlined above. Mr. Akita is toying with us, and it’s bucket loads of fun.

There are plenty of Merzbow haters out there, people convinced that Mr. Akita is churning out the same crap over and over again. F.I.D dispels that myth completely. It proves that not only is Merzbow a great noise artist, but that noise itself is a multi-faceted genre capable of more depth and excitement than the general music listening public will ever give it credit for. As far as I’m concerned, this record is a must have for noise nerds and Merzbow fans a like.

Merzbow Marathon: Age of 369/Chant 2

Merzbow: Age of 369/Chant 2
Extreme Records (1996)

There’s a lot that I should love about this double-disc compilation of Merzbow cassettes from the 80s, but for reasons out of my grasp I’m not feeling this much at all. Merzbient made me incredibly curious about Mr Akita’s analogue work, so much so that I want to hunt down more. While Age of 369 / Chant 2 is choc-full of carefully pieced (piled?) together snippets of musical samples, voices, objects smashing and ‘instruments’ clanging it lacks….chutzpah.

Six of the seven tracks are heavy on mechanical drones and all have a very live-in-the-room feel which differs greatly form his more recent, digital output. There are some fine moments, such as the snippets of Elvis that flicker in and out of the mix at one point and the semi-tortured screams that are manipulated on the opening track, but Mr Akita’s propensity to allow this miasma to bubble away aimlessly is ultimately a let down.

I imagine that in the context of ‘82 or ‘83, when this stuff was recorded and released, such a mish mash of grating clamor must have been unique. Perhaps as a ‘relic’ these two cassettes warranted a digital re-release, but with all the other noise that’s happened since that era Age of 369/Chant 2 sounds a little bit….meh. Can I hear you say that maybe I’m overdoing the Merzbow with this whole marathon thing? Am I simply Merzbow-ed out at the moment? Ha! That couldn’t be further from the truth because I’ve already moved on from Age of 369/Chant 2 and the next Merzbow record I plan to write about is a fucking corker.

But you know, there are plenty of you out there that will probably hate that record while rating Age of 369/Chant 2. And this is what becomes more and more intriguing to me, the subjective randomness of the genre. The more noise I listen to the harder it gets to pin point why one record turns me on and another bores me, or why someone else is fascinated by what makes my ears glaze over. Not to say that Age of 369/Chant 2 is completely shit or irrelevant. There’s just better out there. Although the cover art and cd booklet are a nice series of collaged porn images, Japanese fabrics (?) and typography. Whether that makes this worth the listen or not, well……….

Merzbow Marathon: Rattus Rattus

Merzbow: Rattus Rattus
Scarcelight Recordings (2005)

When I’m compiling my thoughts on something I intend to review for this blog, I won’t usually read other reviews out there on the web. I’ll research the artist if I’m not familiar with them, but in general I don’t want other people’s reviews influencing my own. Rattus Rattus was a Merzbow record that I’d barely heard anything about before I stumbled across a second hand copy in a dingy store, and with its simple cardboard-pocket packaging I honestly thought it was some sort of Merzbow sampler or e.p. So, I scoured the interwebs and discovered it is in fact considered to be an album. There are plenty of reviews out there too, and the vast majority of them are by people not necessarily into noise who found this record rather challenging. ‘Relentless’ ‘thunderous’ ‘slap/kick in the face’ ‘monotonous’ are phrases constantly used to describe Rattus Rattus in these musings – how is it that so many people not into Merzbow have heard this particular disc?

This made me realise that I’m either weird, or officially a noise nerd because I place Rattus Rattus among the more accessible of Mr Akita’s work.

This three track disc starts with two teasers, the first of which opens with a blown-out stampede of tribal drums and explosions of fuzz that settle into a comfortable drone. Various whirs and ticks are looped underneath the slab of sound, before the heaviness gives way to a series of squeaky squelches. The following track continues the droning theme with a deep hum (like a massive air conditioning unit) offset by a series of high-end buzzes. The Zen-like drone is punctuated by jagged shrieks of hiss and spatters of silence

But these are mere previews for the 39-minute finale Rattus Rattus Suite, which traverses a significant amount of territory for the first fifteen minutes – cash register explosions, Hitchcock-like synth stabs, something that sounds like people laughing but could just as easily be Mr Akita’s beloved chickens, the regular bleep of an EEG machine, melting computers –and then settles into a reassuring drone.

What makes this record ‘accessible’ (by Merzbow standards) is that the same sounds reappear at varying points throughout. Rattus Rattus is big on the loops, which provide something to latch onto and the familiarity makes it comforting. It’s also a heavy record, there’s loads of bass. This is Merzbow doing his pulse and throb thing which really works for me.

Rattus Rattus was released during his string of ‘Merz’ themed records, arguably his most accessible work. While there are similarities with that series’ fascination with rhythm and bass Rattus Rattus stands apart as a wilder, free form beast. If you’ve dabbled in and enjoyed the ‘Merz’ series, and are looking for a gateway to his more visceral and extreme work this could be your ticket. Scarcelight doesn’t seem to exist anymore so you might have to hunt this one down on Discogs or eBay.

Merzbow Marathon – Merzbow vs. Nordvargr: Partikel

Merzbow vs. Nordargr: Partikel
Cold Spring (2004)

Just over twelve months ago I returned from a trip to Japan, during which I purchased an abundance of Merzbow records, most at insanely cheap prices. Would you believe that I’ve only managed to listen to a couple of them so far, not to mention that I’ve picked up a handful more of his records since returning from Japan (of those, at least I listened to and enjoyed Merzbient and Ouroborous)

Anyway, what I’m saying is that i really need to listen to those records but at the rate I keep purchasing new music I’m never going to get around to it. So, I’m going to listen to, and write about all the parts of my Merzbow collection that I’ve not heard yet.

And I’ll attempt to do it all this month, February.

Yes it’s a crazy goal that I probably won’t achieve but dammit I’m going to try. And yes I know that on my initial return from Japan I said that I wanted to give myself time to truly take in each Merzbow release I’d bought, but that obviously isn’t working. So I’m taking one for the team. Or something.

I’m starting my Merzbow Marathon with Partikel, described as a collaboration between Mr. Akita and Nordvargr, the Scandinavian Industrial/Dark Ambient maestro who’s been around for years but I’m not really familiar with. I guess I’m cheating a bit because I’ve actually been listening to this for a few weeks now and I have to say that it’s easily cracked my list of Merzbow favourites. Like Merzbuta, Partikel toys with glitchy and skittering beats similar to the most challenging moments of Autechre (think Draft 7.30 or Untilted). But unlike Merzbuta, rythm is merely the base for a spectrum of moody arrangements,  tides of noise and creepy atmospheres.

Similar to Yoshinotsune, here Merzbow’s trademarks are used to build tension and release, to inspire imaginary worlds rather than solely challenge the concept, constructs and constraints of music. Not being familiar with Nordvargr’s back catalog I can’t say for sure that his influence is what makes Partikel such a trip, but this the least Merzbow sounding Merzbow record I’ve heard yet. And I like it, I like it a lot.

The third and final track in particular, a 20+ minute epic driven by a bulging metronomic rhythm built out of bass heavy fuzz is my favourite. It rolls on in an endless trance, mesmerising in its repetitiveness, punctuated by swirls of feedback and distorted squall. It’s hypnotic and noisy, like super damaged Krautrock.

Partikel is the first in a trilogy of collaborations between these two artists and while it’s no longer available from the Cold Spring site I’ve seen it floating around on eBay from time to time. I’m very keen to hear the following two records in this series, along with whatever else Nordvargr’s back catologue has to offer.

Digging – Merzbow: Eucalypse

Merzbow: Eucalypse
Soleilmoon Recordings (2008)

While listening to Eucalypse it struck me that my interest in Merzbow’s noise has little rhyme or reason. What I dislike about one of his records is what attracts me to another. So, technically I shouldn’t enjoy Eucalypse because it shares the same walls of noise found on records like Mercurated and Annica, both of which really bore me but instead I’m loving it in same way that Great American Nude/Crash for Hi-Fi charmed the pants of me despite its obsession with white noise.

Eucalypse is five tracks of thick, uncompromising and static-y noise, a prime example of digital Merzbow, but the difference is in the delicate elements camouflaged amongst the din; specks of Merzbear’s bass-heavy chug, the distant drones from Zophorous, and even moments of melody when subdued synths (and guitars?) change key randomly.

It’s difficult NOT to fantasise about hearing this blasted out of a decent PA system, and feeling the physical presence of each element Mr Akita uses to conjure his squall as it ejects itself out from the speaker stack.

The closing track is my favourite. It’s wayyyyyyy heavy and sludgy, like some buzz saw Black Metal band slowed down to a bass-driven dirge and played really fucking loud so that everything merges into one charred, shapeless mess. Mr Akita would look great in corpse paint, would he just?

Eucalypse comes packaged in a spunky tear-shaped wooden box with five cards that explain the demise of the Eucalyptus tree. This is the first specially packaged Merzbow record that I’ve bought, having always been weary that the gimmick has been used to disguise the average recording within. This is definitely not the case here.