Ever walked past a construction site with a friend? Tyres squeal, diggers crunch, the yells of the foreman at unpredictable moments sound like a rasping opera singer. Amongst the cacophony you might be privy to the death-rattle of a spade being dragged across concrete, the dissonant hum of some industrial equipment that enters your taringas and takes root like a malevolent virus. You find the sounds unpleasant at best, agonising in the mean, akin to C.I.A. sensory torture at worst, and are about to say so when your companion turns to you and gets there first. They’re grinning ear-to-ear, in a shit-eating way: “I love this song! Isn’t it beautiful!”
I will argue that Harsh Noise emerged in the 1960s. A joke: what do you call a John Coltrane album you downloaded off mediafire? Free Jazz! Coltrane was by no means the first musician to record in the cacophonous, unstructured way that defines Free Jazz—he derived inspiration from fellow genre stalwarts Cecil Taylor and especially Ornette Coleman—but he was the one who created the genres language and form, wrote the genre’s coding and its binary. Free Jazz was intended to elicit new sounds, both individually and in ensemble, and make use of purely free structure and interplay. The argument was that “new” sounds would a) elicit new emotions and b) re-enact a spiritual experience, creating a medium for communicating with divinity. In the words of one optimistic essayist, Free Jazz “will germinate trend-setting innovations and bring about an unpredictable apotheosis, a euphoria none of the music-makers or listeners could have expected beforehand”.
The irony of this music being deemed “inaccessible” is that Coltrane, though privately Christian, was deliberately ambiguous about which creator his crescendos were supposed to commune with—he named one album Om, put a song called “The Father The Son and The Holy Ghost” on an album entitled Meditations. Squall = Transcendence.
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Listening to his albums recorded under the auspices of Free Jazz, it’s easy to see them as prototypes of the pulverising, uncompromising sonic attacks that compose (no pun intended) Harsh Noise today. This is especially true of his live concerts, often performed with his similarly talented and vastly underrated wife Alice banging away on the piano. Take the recording of his penultimate concert, a kind of holy grail for jazz fans that finally found its way into mainstream release decades after it was recorded. When the band let themselves in after an elongated double-bass solo on “My Favourite Things”, just shy of the eight-minute mark, the force could quite literally blow you off your seat or impel you to have a sit-down. The power is such that even the most fastidious of shoe-gazers couldn’t replicate it.
Point: Another thing about his albums: they sound as bold and beautiful, not to mention monstrous, as I infer they did decades ago. Counter-Point: I note that other free jazz albums, like Peter Brotzmann’s infamous Machine Gun, have aged poorly in comparison. Perhaps the reason is that Brotzmann used the genre as a means of provoking and disquieting his audience, and only that; sure, there are primal thrills to be had, especially in the savage percussive work and menacing piano clunks, but honestly? It’s a bit boring. Point: Kaoru Abe was a Japanese Free Jazz saxophonist who used the most discordant range of his instrument as a means of communicating the frenetic highs and lows of a heroin addiction, as well as what made sense for him when he was strung-out. His crucial works have been re-issued; Brotzmann’s are on the wane.
While there are sonic and ideological similarities between free jazz and noise, I do want to stress that this paragraph only negotiates the “why?”, not the “how?” or “when?”. I’d like to, if I may, define “noise” as three main entities, which sired sub-genre offshoots along the way. The first is Noise Rock, which most music scholars generally agree emergeth of The Velvet Underground’s crackin’ (lol) White Light/White Heat or, outside the anglosphere, Les Rallizes Denudes’ raucous, feedback-drenched, often illegal live shows. In New Zealand we can lay claim to one of the first Noise Rock bands, The Gordons, who took the ball and ran with it until NME proclaimed them “the loudest band in the world”. It reached its height in the 90s, when bands like The Jesus Lizard used their testicles as instruments, Sonic Youth’s seminal Daydream Nation, though released in 1988, started getting college-radio play and Unwound started wailing at all-ages venues. Noise Rock is defined by its utilisation of dissonance, feedback, distorted guitar, ruptured drums; but it’s essential to note that the genre employs coherent, recognisable song structures and melodies (often angular) amidst the calamity. Or, to put it another way: Noise Rock is Rock Music focused through a literal blender.
This brings us to Noise music proper. I want to note here that this epic is not moving forward chronologically but rather in descending order of what would be conventionally understood to be most to least accessible. Despite many academics claiming that “Noise” and “Noise Rock” are abjectly dissimilar—predictably, boringly, these arguments are made on elitist grounds—the relationship between the two is filled with overlap and compenetration. Deciding which came first would be a chicken and egg scenario—they both bolster and deconstruct the other.
Essentially, Noise is distinguished from Noise Rock by the absence of conventional rock structures and tropes—there is nothing that approximates “verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus”, no crescendo, no intros or outros. Instead Noise is “free” and non-idiomatic, utilising feedback, computer generated noise, extreme vocal techniques, found sounds that sound suitably abrasive, acousmatic noises and, well, noise. Never, outside of Cock Rock, has a genre been so aptly named. Noise does not need to be dissonant or ferocious or even very loud, although it often is; its aggression is often covert. Noise hasn’t really had a historical apex, though it sells to its unique market fairly consistently, but it’s commonly believed to have infiltrated its way into the mainstream with—again—Lou Reed. In 1975, he recorded Metal Machine Music as a way of getting out of a record contract and as a way of trolling his avid listeners, many of whom were expecting Transformer II: Revenge of the Fallen (mixed-media pun alert). Instead, they got an hour-long album consisting entirely of a feedback solo. Deranged visionary or monumental git? History seems to have settled on “both”, but I doubt Reed knew what a Pandora’s Box he’d opened. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.
From there, noise caught on even in our far-flung part of the globe. Most notable perhaps is Birchville Cat Motel—imagine how many people have accidentally downloaded one of his albums expecting In The Aeroplane Over The Sea—a Wellington native whose album Our Love Will Destroy The World “split” an unprepared reviewer’s ears. In the hinterlands of Otago, meanwhile, The Dead C took Reed’s challenge and turned the volume dial up to eleven, releasing a series of critically acclaimed—not to mention Sonic Youth-acclaimed—albums that were politely ignored outside of Dunedin. Even today Dead C albums have to be specially imported from overseas, an anecdote that the members of the band delight in telling in a “fuck you New Zealand” kind of way. Art imitates life; hostility generates hostility.
Noise provided the foundations for sub-genres to multiply like rabbits. They did so practically biblically: “And lo it was that Noise begat Industrial and Harsh Noise; Industrial begat a daughter, Death Industrial, While Harsh Noise birthed two brothers, Power Electronics and Harsh Noise Wall.” I’m wary of stating that Harsh Noise is essentially Noise taken to its (il)logical conclusions and limits, even though it does make for a pretty adroit soundbite. Descriptions like this don’t account for the subtlety and nuance that many examples of the genre display, and there’s a lot more going on in Harsh Noise than reactionary aggression or merely trying to make a listener as uncomfortable as possible. It does need to be acknowledged, however, that Harsh Noise does what it says on the tin. It relies on mammothly vicious, almost primal, noises and sounds that either pulverise the listener into abiding submission or make them frantically scramble for the OFF switch. Imagine the most unpleasant sound you can—fingernails on a chalkboard, the squeal of a cat fighting, a five-year-old fucking around on a violin—and Harsh Noise is there to one-up it.
The genre caught like wildfire in Japan and South Korea, and as such its biggest proponents in terms of listenership—if “1000 copies sold!” doesn’t stretch the term “biggest” too much—hail from the Asias. A catchy label has even been coined for Harsh Noise from Japan, “Japanoise”. I can’t decide if this portmanteau is inspired or subtly racist, but with Merzbow, Boris and other dominating names being of Japanese origin, it would be impossible to ignore their influence.
It turned out that Harsh Noise was far from the end-game of inaccessible, remote dissonance. Harsh Noise Wall removes even the structure of dynamics and variation, creating monolithic and unchanging “walls” of pure, unyielding noise and clobbering you over the head with it for upward of thirty minutes.
Power Electronics, meanwhile takes the “feedback” of harsh noise and formulates it into unpredictable cresting waves, adds sounds that screech like power tools to the mix and scream unintelligible, harsh vocals. Proponents of these two sub-genres claim to represent the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind; explore the buried parts of our sexualities, egos, ideas. If this is what the genres are capable of, then opportunities are frequently squandered. Many song titles are designed for shock value, which makes them either puerile—if I were to write a parody of a power electronics song I’d call it “Blood in the Malodorous Stool Sample” or “When I Misbehave My Mistress Gives Me a Piss Enema” or some shit—or as disgustingly racist as the power structures they purport to be deconstructing (one album has a suite charmingly called: “Critical Determination of Genetic Malfunction in Three Racial Groups: A1 Negro; A2 Hispanic; A3 Semite (Arab and Jew)”. Fuck off) that ends up attracting literal neo-Nazis and embarrassing everyone else in the entire scene. But then sometimes—sometimes—it works effectively, especially if people with an iota of intelligence are behind the stridency. Puce Mary’s incredible, punishing “The Female Form” is a vicious excoriation and representation of insidious misogyny and learned behaviours; it’s albums like these that do the genre’s vast potential justice.
1 a) Harsh Noise is made by, and often for, the misfits, the oddballs, the alienated, the solitudinous, the alone. Harsh Noise befriends the lonely in this scenario. Harsh Noise albums build palatial and cold castles, always offering vacancies, for misfits to reside in, at least for a time.
b) Harsh Noise is escapism that knows you, the seething rages and terrible, terrible isolation, and promises “never will I forsake you again”. Harsh Noise is beautiful music for those allergic to sunlight.
c) Harsh Noise is demonstrative of different ways of perceiving, judging. Harsh Noise attracts those who are not “neurotypical” in both creators and listeners. Those suffering from mental illness, those who fall on the autistic spectrum, might find music that relates to unconventional brain processes. The solace this offers—“oh my God I’m not alone”—is invaluable. A way of perceiving the beautiful in the brutal.
2 a) If you’ve clocked the Pitchfork canon and are eager to embrace something new. This generally leads the listener along two diverging—but rewarding—paths: 1) outside the anglosphere, into Choro or Native American music or te puoro Māori or whatever or 2) deeper down the rabbit hole of Western genres. It’s a hell of a way down, lassie.
b) We’re designed by nature to experiment. The law of diminishing returns necessitates exploration, cravings for the new as we become more and more attuned to old favourites. What could be better than something sounds alien, cold, surreal?
3) When I found out that Darren Wilson was acquitted of murdering Michael Brown, Mo*Te’s bitterly ironic album Life in a Peaceful New World was the only thing that made sense. It was an album capable of capturing the futile rage, the despair, the only acceptable reactions to structural injustices and manifest cruelty. It functions a bit like Harsh Metal in this way; as Converge showed on Jane Doe, rage is inarticulable and inarticulate, incapable of being expressed through words but capable of self-expression nonetheless. The difference is that Metal showcases the kind of fury that one can only experience after a period of happiness, so comes with the added dimension of incorporating something that was once felt by omission. Harsh Noise laments what has never been and what may never be. Every time a Darren Wilson is acquitted, the further we get from a Life in a Peaceful New World, and that is something worth being vexed about.
4) Though at first examples of the genre sound monochromatic, repeated exposure highlights a wealth of variation and eclecticism—not unlike listening to Radio Pop. Because it sounds fucking great. It’s cathartic, intense, impassioned, kinda fun, enlivening. Because it’s a brazen challenge; and a challenge you can decide whether or not you heed.
5) It’ll annoy your flatmates and friends and you can laugh when you put it on at parties. LMAO.