Wall of noise
by Rev. Walter Beck
One of the most obscure corners of rock n roll is the realm of noise music; rarely regarded in mainstream music circle, with lone exceptions such as the Butthole Surfers (who scored a hit in the early ‘90’s with “Pepper”) and The Jesus Lizard (who appeared on the soundtrack to Kevin Smith’s Clerks), noise music continues to bend the rules of conventional sound and make its own mark on the music landscape. This is a world where instruments are bent, wrecked or custom-made, where verse-chorus-verse, melodies or even any semblance of tradition song-structure are cut-up and discarded. As with some of my previous columns, I’m here to introduce you to this strange wall of sound with some of the Rev’s Favorite Noise Records.
Lou Reed Metal Machine Music: Coming out in 1975, this is the album that nearly destroyed Reed’s career as it is an hour of continuous guitar feedback layers. It is a challenge to listen to and even today it remains hard to classify; in an interview, Reed claimed that this album was the ultimate conclusion of the then-new heavy metal genre. I admit, when I first listened to this album, I didn’t quite know what to think. It takes several spins and a little patience to see that this slab of distortion and feedback is truly the foundation for all modern noise music.
NON Easy Listening for Iron Youth: If Reed laid the foundation, then Boyd Rice took it to the next level in excess. Taking the basics of feedback, distortion and found sounds, Rice pushed all boundaries of human noise tolerance with his project NON and this “best-of” collection is a perfect introduction for his work. While wrapped in gritty excess, there is a level of gothic brilliance to this record, it sounds like the soundtrack to some lost obscure horror flick.
Big Black Songs About Fucking: Steve Albini is probably more well-known in mainstream music circles for his production work and his fiercely independent iconoclasm, but this record from his old band Big Black set the standard for noise punk. Aside from having the most honest album title in rock n roll history, Albini and his gang pushed the boundaries of punk rock by mixing the noise techniques with a strong hardcore punk backing. This album is a blurry frenzy and concludes with a strange cover of Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore”.
Earth Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version: This record from Seattle’s Earth pioneered what would become known as “drone doom”, a form of doom metal that took extended bass riffs and slowed them down to an almost hypnotic point while layering them with other sounds. This three-cut record is an extraordinarily powerful album as the layers and frequency of noise create a very gothic atmosphere.
Atari Teenage Riot Live at Brixton Academy 1999: This was recorded on one of ATR’s last tours before they split and the German digital hardcore pioneers left on a note that is ear-shattering. This is a one-track, thirty minute journey through shouted vocals, keyboards and synthesizers that sound like they’re on the verge of exploding and occasional guitar, drums and bass that cut through the mix. This intense album is one of my favorite live recordings as it sounds like a violent outburst building and building and building.
Whitehouse Total Sex: Named after one of Britain’s foremost advocates of censorship, Mary Whitehouse, this group pioneered what would be known as “power electronics”, a strange form of electronic/industrial music that would push any and all boundaries of song structure and performance. This record was their sophomore release and even today, it’s one of the most intense recordings I’ve heard. The electronic quavering and out of sync and distant sounding vocals created a new soundscape in the world of noise music.
Explosions 4 Freedom Appetite for Great Justice: A one-man noise machine from Terre Haute’s own Alex Ragle, this debut release provides a solid example of contemporary noise music as it mixes a strange sense of humor where Ragle thanks people for giving him money and obscure gaming and TV references, mixed in with live snippets, guitar noise that ranges from blues-based to absolute shredding, this is not an album for the normally minded. I’ve seen Explosions 4 Freedom perform on several occasions and this release is a good capture of Ragle’s strange humor and avant-garde noise obsession.
See, noise music isn’t a one-dimensional machine; there’re bands that range from the hypnotic to the insanely intense, bands that mix punk, gothic and classic influences into their sonic destruction. But above else, these are bands and records that push all boundaries of the vast universe of sounds and have put to tape, vinyl, CD and MP3 some of the strangest transmissions heard by humanity.