03 August 2004


Must admit I haven't read The Wire for a while, so am currently ignorant of the details of Keenen's Noise Primer piece, but there's been plenty of stimulating discourse on the subject in blogdom. I can see both sides of the argument; relating to the pro-Keenens like Derek Walmsley with his talk of "music of psychological liberation, a struggle to create creative space via sculpting sounds. The struggle is itself rewarding..." whilst also being in total agreement with K-Punk when he suggests "Loveless and successors such as Fennesz are powerful precisely because they melt the oppositions between melody and noise, pleasure and pain, pop and experimentalism". Mark's really hit the spot there. That point where 'conventional' music forms get shafted by a big dollop of the White Hissy Stuff can produce some of the most intoxicating moments. Whilst "Loveless" and "Psychocandy" are two of the most high-profile examples of the pop-noise interface, there's plenty of other isolated examples littering the alleyways of pop/rock history.

Aside from the obvious noise-as-futuristic-effect ("Telstar", "Silver Machine"), one of the most powerful applications is when used as a vehicle to express extreme emotional impact. I believe the Beatles take credit for the first use of feedback in a pop song (the intro to "I Feel Fine") but it wasn't until the final studio album, "Abbey Road", that they really used it to full effect on the final section of Lennon's "I Want You (she's so heavy)": a slow-burning wall of feedback that gradually increases in volume, then suddenly cuts out just as it's about to completely drown out the rest of the track, perfectly illustrating the tidal wave of intense longing that the lyrics refer to. More recently, Smog pulled-off a similar trick on "Cold Blooded Old Times", from the "Knock Knock" album. Bill Callaghan's invocation of unspeakably awful childhood experiences ("the type of memories that turn your bones to glass") is concluded by a sustained howl of feedback whiteout that conveys the protagonist's inner torment and rage in a cathartic explosion of feeling.

But perhaps my all time favourite use of noise in a pop song is on "Cindy Tells Me", from Eno's "Here Come The Warm Jets". An otherwise highly melodic - almost bubblegum - tune, "Cindy" features, on the first chorus, a speaker-shredding wash of feedback-delay that's so unexpected, so inappropriate, yet completely galvanises the song, giving it an adrenalin shot that elevates it into the upper stratosphere.

Having said all that, I'm not averse to the idea of 'pure' noise composition. I'm surprised at how many people in this community are, actually. True, it's a marginal area of my collection, an area to dip into occasionally when in the required 'zone'. I think the last noise album I really enjoyed was Non's "Children Of The Black Sun", on which Boyd Rice went for a widescreen, panoramic sound that proved that noise can be beautifully produced (in DVD 5.1 sound no less!) yet retain it's crushing intensity. Boyd made some interesting observations in Re/Search's Industrial Culture Handbook about the way the human mind, when confronted by an apparently formless barrage of noise, can begin to impose it's own order:

"I think a lot of the noise suggests structures in people's heads that aren't actually there. Which is what it should do. I've made a lot of tapes of pure noise and I know there are no voices on them, yet you listen back and you swear there are voices. And on "Pagan Music" even though it's just loops of noise, you can hear definite little melodies coming out...the most subtle elements can become very pronounced."

So anyway, I guess my position is that, broadly speaking, I'm pro-Noise. I have my limits, of course. I can quite happily listen to Whitehouse, but never could get into Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music". Too samey. Like any other genre, there's good noise and bad noise. I refuse to dismiss it as an '80s fad. It's all subjective, anyway. No doubt, back in '64, anyone over the age of 30 would've considered The Kink's "You Really Got Me" to be Noise.

To illustrate this point further (and in light of Mr. Stubbs' recent nostalgia trip back to the 'glory days' of MM) I refer to a particularly evocative piece written by The Stud Brothers about Front 242, from Melody Maker, dated February 28th 1987, which begins with a fascinating examination of the (then) current state of popular culture (seen through the Studs' hyperactive gaze), and gives an insight (or perhaps a reminder) of what was perceived to be at stake at that time:


Eighties popular culture, and we mean here POPULAR CULTURE, has seen the reality and spreading of the horrible Seventies phrase "lifestyle", a phrase that is endorsed by horrible words like "health", "yuppie" and "career". From the radios, Walkmans, televisions and politicians ooze the philosophies of the New Valium Aesthetic that then slop into the brainpans of previously rational and intelligent people. The most trivial activities, like listening to pop music and taking cocaine, are raised to the level of great metaphysical significance.

In opposition to the New Valium Aesthetic, America and Europe have spawned "alternative" pockets of culture. In pop music a few subversive cells battle ineffectively for the communal cottonwool mind. Viva hip-hop. Viva the shambling kids. And, of course, viva NOISE.


"Noise" - that wonderfully loud and empty five-letter word. The cells, basically European, that sit rather unwillingly beneath this banner, regard it with the sceptism with which Nick Cave might treat the word "goth". Groups like the Young Gods and Front 242, in an effort not to be labelled, have invented their own labels. The Young Gods call their product New Sonic Architecture and Front 242 call theirs FRONT 242. These at least have the advantage of being accurate.
Their efforts, though, are merely rewarded with the critical label "noise". Unfortunately, "noise" in the Eighties has become an abstract term of little or no meaning, like the words "love and "fascism". The appeal of the word is that it seems to stand in emotive opposition to the words "music" and "melody", it suggests an alternative, independence and eventually subversion. But, as a term, it works purely in presumption. That's to say, if we assume Chris De Burgh to be UNnoise then we can, with banal simplicity, describe The Birthday Party as "noise".

The argument that "noise" exists at all as a medium is so feeble and sentimental that ultimately we agree with it because we can't believe it deserves any rational opposition.

"Noise" never exists for long. "Noise" can become "art" like Neubaten. "Noise" is never constant, it can become melody like "Ace Of Spades". "Noise" can be anything and, in the real world, it usually is. "Noise" exists like pain....subjectively.

I was sufficiently impressed by the article to use one of my Sixth Form free-periods the following day to sneak off into town to buy 242's "Official Version". Now, I've never really considered 242 to be a "Noise" band but, when I returned to school triumphantly brandishing my new purchase and slapped it on the Sixth Form Common Room's turntable, my peers were almost universally united in their aversion to it. To them it was just a 'Noise', which seemed rather odd when you consider that a couple of years earlier they'd all been happily listening to Depeche Mode's "Master & Servant". Perhaps you just need a pretty face to sell Noise? I say that with no disrespect to Depeche - you can say what you like about the mid-80's, or scoff at DM's 'Industrial Lite' sound, but where else will you find an example of a big selling Boy Band that applies that level of experimentation and feeds it to a teenage mass market? Amazing, really. To my ears, Front 242 were pretty catchy, like a more sour-faced, grown-up Depeche. In the accompanying interview, 242's uncredited spokesman is quick to distance the group from any Noise connotations:

MM: Are 242 noise?
242: We don't really like that word. I mean, what's noise, what's not noise? I mean, have you heard the LP, would you say that that's noise?
MM: No, but we could see others saying so.
242: Have you heard the seven inch, 'Quite Unusual', is that noise?
MM: No, it's probably got more in common with the Human League than, say, Neubaten.
242: Well, I know people that call the Human League 'noise' even now. I know people that call hip-hop 'noise'. When I listen to English radio, I think they put noise on all the time, I think The Housemartins are noise. We make music out of noises. We sample noises from everywhere, we don't make 'noise'.
MM: What sort of noises do you like in particular?
242: We should say 'sound'.
MM: What sort of sounds do you like in particular?
242: I like metal sounds but not like Neubaten or Test Department. We make metal sounds and work on them to make, say, a bass sound. But that's personal. There is no catalogue of sound for me, there are just sounds that you like and those that you don't like. It's the same with music, there is no form of music that I prefer. I try to be open even if I don't like The Housemartins and all that bullshit.
MM: Do you ever stop in the street and think: "What a brilliant sound"?
242: Yeah, sure. The last great thing we heard was on tour in Sweden. we found that the red light for the blind at a pedestrian crossing made a great noise. We sampled it for one of the tracks on the LP.
MM: Which track?
242: It's not important.

Reading that bit about turning metal sounds into bass sounds, it strikes me that most modern laptop-driven electronica focuses on editing and programming skills - which can admittedly be a total rush - but I can't think of that many current producers who put in the amount of Research & Development into sound morphing/sculpting that Front 242 were involved in back then, and when they do it's usually excavating/remoulding bits of other people's music in the Hip Hop tradition (Four Tet's Folk-bending, Prefuse 73's glitched-out Jazzscapes). Who is there really working with the fabric of everyday environmental sounds in popular music?

By a strange coincidence, on the reverse of the 242 page is another article that appears to address the very same subject. But I only have the second half, and can't remember who wrote it. Reading the following passage makes me suspect it might've been a Reynolds piece:


Too often, noise has meant a level plane of abraded texture, which can merely add up to a different kind of blandness, a sense-dulling consistency. There needs to be more dips, swerves, use of space and architecture, more faltering in the rhythms. Hip Hop is something the noise bands can learn from. The current hip hop aesthetic, as displayed by the music of Salt-n-Pepa, Deejay Marley Marl, Frick and Frapp, Beastie Boys, is based around the forcing-into-friction of antagonistic ambiences and idioms, sampled from random points in pop history. The effect is psychedelic, dispersing consciousness as effectively as any pure din.

The guitar is still privileged as a source of noise. There needs to be a renewed awareness of the capacity of the synthesiser and sampling to produce filthy, noxious tones. There needs to be a realisation of how far rock trails behind the avant garde and New Jazz. People have to follow through the possibilities for the human voice opened up by Diamanda Galas and Tim Buckley; to listen again to Faust, Can, Hendrix, Sun Ra, Cabaret Voltaire, Suicide....and labels like Recommended, Crammed, Play It Again Sam...

I remember being particularly galvanised by that second paragraph. It sort of sounds like something Simon might say (apart from the New Jazz bit?). But then again, Stubbs is the big Faust and Hendrix fan, right? If anyone (especially the true author) would like to step forward and shed some light on this, I'd be most grateful.

But if one were looking for a modern-day album that fits at least some of the above criteria and validates the Noise aesthetic as a force for further exploration, then you could do a lot worse than check out the sonic behemoth that is Pan Sonic's latest, "Kesto". No less a luminary that David Toop, when discussing his new book "Music, Silence And Memory" in this month's Record Collector, cites Pan Sonic as one of the "good examples of electronic musicians whose music is powerful and uncompromising, yet maintaining strong connections with familiar musical approaches". "Kesto" is actually four projects in one, as Finland's finest distill the essence of their muse, extracting and separating the constituent parts, presenting each facet on a separate CD. If we're talking about Noise in it's most literal sense, then disc 1 is where it can be found - in abundance! This presents Pan Sonic at their most violent; chiseling cubist sculptures from huge, granite-like blocks of distortion, or working their fingers through visceral lumps of static clay. My first experience of Pan Sonic was when I saw them live, supporting Suicide in 1998. I was impressed by the apparent level of improvisation - quite unusual for an electronic act - as they wrestled with raw sound: caressing, kneading, throttling....I can still feel that sense of struggle in their studio work; there's an immediacy, a sense of of-the-moment interaction between Man and Noise that suggests heroic, passionate labour. Although there's very little that could be described as 'melodic content' here, by anchoring this fearsome racket to electro-flavoured beats, Pan Sonic inject an accessible element to what would otherwise be an overpoweringly intense experience. I can detect a direct lineage to the late-70s Industrial/Post Punk school. Whilst "Diminisher" is clearly a homage to Suicide (evoking the spectre of the 'journey into hell' sequence from "Frankie Teardrop") and "Mayhem II" kicks with the sci-fi garage rock propulsion of "Nag Nag Nag", one of the strongest comparisons would be with SPK's "Information Overload Unit" album. Anyone who appreciates SPK 'classics' like "Emanation Machine R.Gie 1916" (like standing next to a jumbo jet engine at full throttle) or "Epilept:Convulse" (lurching drum machine with noise-stab punctuation) will feel at home here.

But for all disc 1's euphoric onslaught, it's disc 2 that's the real gem. The beats remain, but Pan Sonic ease off on the distortion boxes and focus on more sensual textures. The results are some of the most achingly beautiful dronescapes; the deepest rhythm-driven electronic meditation I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I'm not sure if I'm entirely certain what Matt Woebotnik meant when he spoke of 'Atmosphere' recently, but if you take it to mean a sense of space/place/environment then this stuff's got it in spades. The final track, "Arctic", is maybe one of the finest single pieces of music I've heard in, say, 10 years. Beginning with a simple four-note bass melody and pattering 808 drum pattern, the track swells into a huge corrosive drone of devastating emotional intensity that leaves me breathless and even a little tearful.

Disc 3 removes the beats and nearly all melodic content completely, delving into pure abstract ambient sound manipulation. Imagine if you removed the music from Joy Division's "Insight" and just kept Martin Hannant's lift-shaft atmospherics and you'll get the picture. Not as instantly gratifying as the previous discs, it is nevertheless a fascinating excursion. After a low sustained bass-tone, "Sewageworld" kicks off with the sound of a toilet flushing (very "Faust Tapes"), then develops into a series of clammy drips, clangs and thuds, not dissimilar to the sound effects near the end of Kubrick's "2001:A Space Odyssey" when Dave Bowman arrives at his final destination. "Arches Of Frost" sounds like gigantic concrete cylinders rubbing against each other, whilst "Inexplicable" adds a subtle wash of background tones that reminds me of the imaginary environments of Eno's "On Land".

Disc 4 is one continuous hour-long drone piece - the point where Pan Sonic flatline into total minimal drift. Not the easiest of work to digest, I find it best to just crank it up and go about my business around the house, letting my attention wander in and out of the piece as it slowly absorbs into the very fabric of my home. Coming back to what Boyd Rice said, although it appears be a series of overlapping metallic sustained tones, I keep thinking I can here a female choral effect - but I'm not sure if its actually there or not. Weird.

Album of the year so far, no contest.