exPearimental #1: Noise Music

by Rob Scott

Let’s start at the deep end. In its purest form, noise music is what the name suggests. It’s even debatable whether the term ‘music’ can be applied to it, for its rejection of all tonality, its subversion of structure, and welcoming all the traditionally undesirable elements of music: feedback, static, orderless anarchy. The noise music scene is effectively an arms race of who can produce the most unpleasant, repulsive sounds, whether electronically, instrumentally or vocally. It’s music which refuses to be what you think of as music. While you’re unlikely to put on a noise album to relax or walk from A to B it can be fun to delve into a track or two just to awe at the sound of pure abrasion. It’s the musical equivalent of watching a splatter movie or those YouTube videos of people squeezing boils. Musical masochism coupled with morbid curiosity: it’s appalling, yet thrilling.

However, a distinction should be drawn between noise music and noise in music. Noise artists have influenced many more traditional musicians, particularly in rock and hip-hop, and have also been influenced by preceding musicians who radically welcomed the use of feedback and static and general sonic unpleasantness. Starting by listening to music which uses noise, and gaining an understanding of where they’re coming from is perhaps the best way to eventually conquer the genre in its purer form…

Star-Spangled Banner - Live at Woodstock 1969 — Jimi Hendrix

To perform the US national anthem on guitar with walls of feedback, distortion, and static (in other words, noise) acted as both an act of artistic patriotism and artistic dissent. In just four minutes Hendrix encapsulated the unease, chaos and cultural revolution of 60s America: the Vietnam War, hippy counterculture, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement. The radical subversion and reinterpretation of such a classic American song by defiling it with traditionally unpleasant or unwanted sounds perfectly conveyed how the times were a-changin’.

Dazed And Confused - Live in Paris 1969 — Led Zeppelin

It’s hard to convey how raucous and heavy this would have sounded to listeners in the 60s. The bass is fuzzy, the drums are cacophonous, Robert Plant’s vocals are wild and screeching. But what makes this performance truly cutting edge is Jimmy Page’s guitar interlude — minutes of hissing static, wailing feedback, and Page physically hitting his guitar. The wah effect used around the 7-minute mark is so piercing, it could have come straight from a Merzbow track.

Bring The Noise — Public Enemy

In the same way that Hendrix’s use of noise in his Star-Spangled Banner carried political weight, the wilfully tuneless use of samples, vinyl scratching, and swirling siren noises on a Public Enemy track evoke the band’s anxiety and rebellion against the institutionalised racism of American society. Their use of noise is both an artistic representation of the chaos and violence of life in the hood, and an artistic rebellion against the status quo.

Distorted Prose — Dälek

Dälek are one of the most criminally underrated hip-hop groups. Taking off from where Public Enemy started, their use of noise is far more sprawling and distorted, sampling guitar feedback and fuzz. From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots is an essential album for any fan of the political and aggressive side of rap music.

loud — Clipping

“It’s Clipping, bitch!” Clipping produce hip-hop bangers which could be compared to the more abrasive and industrial tracks from Kanye’s Yeezus, were they not laced with belches of static and distortion and what sounds like a dentist drill.

Paul — Girl Band

Girl Band are like an NME indie rock band stripped of any tunefulness. They sound strangely familiar, but simultaneously completely other. They don’t really play their instruments so much as abuse them: bending and scratching and distorting, utilising effects pedals to produce the most intense noises. Paul starts with a steady, strangely danceable drumbeat and warbling bass riff which build to a drop into a sea of swirling guitar noise and distortion.

Brother James - Live at Smart Bar Chicago 1985 — Sonic Youth

On the surface, this is a pretty standard punk rock track. 44 drum beat, steady bass, shouted angsty vocals. But Sonic Youth’s use of deliberately detuned guitars, whammy bars to bend and distort the note, and the truly horrible clashing drum sound set it apart. The lo-fi recording which dominates this album and the constant hisses and screeches of feedback make it Sonic Youth at their most noisy Sonic Youth-iness. Everything in this track sounds ugly. Kim Gordon’s voice is just awful. And I love it.

Clairvoyant — White Suns

White Suns are perhaps the most emotionally raw and intense rock band around today. Their album Totem is near perfect in its absolute bleakness and ugliness. Clairvoyant in particular is the musical epitome of suffering and anguish, void of any notion of positivity - calling it miserable just doesn’t cut it - all thanks to their impeccable use of churning guitar distortion and screamed vocals.

A Sorrow With A Braid - Prurient

Hear we approach noise in its purest form. Prurient, bar Merzbow, is perhaps the most prolific and ingenious noise artists. His latest album Frozen Niagara Falls is a tough listen but perhaps a work of genius, blending pure noise with occasional flourishes of ambience, synth melodies, and acoustic guitars. A Sorrow With A Braid sounds almost alive: pulsing waves of distortion, a distant muffled voice, screech whistles of sound which rise then fall. If an excursion into cold, soul-crushing misery is your thing, then Prurient is your man.

Woodpecker No. 1 — Merzbow

The genius of Merzbow lies in his ability to make pulverising holocaustic noise which sounds like anyone could have made it, but once scrutinised demonstrates massive sonic and structural complexity. The Japanese producer has become almost synonymous with noise. You can’t go far mentioning one without the other. There’s no denying it, sitting through an entire Merzbow track, let alone album, is an endurance test. No one else makes music this repulsive. The enjoyment comes from the masochistic thrill of hearing something so abrasive, and the picking it apart, following the threads of static and distortion, listening for how they morph and develop, the beats and sounds that briefly surface then disappear.

Read the exPearimental Mission Statement here and listen to our playlist below.