When I was growing up in Cincinnati in the ’70s, there used to always be arguments about who the loudest band in the world was, “loudness” being equal to a certain form of “greatness.” At one point there were news reports that the Who was the “loudest” band in rock’n’roll— someone had actually gone to the trouble of measuring the decibel levels at one of their concerts. It was, however, my firm belief that Led Zeppelin was the loudest band in rock, and I had an ongoing argument with this kid named Ben on the topic because he thought that the Eagles— the friggin’ soft-rock Eagles— were the loudest band in rock. He was so wrong.
So, last week I’m reading the little press release sheet that came along from Matador with an advance copy of the new album by the Japanese garage-punk band Guitar Wolf. And here’s what it said: “When we sent the new Guitar Wolf record to the mastering lab . . . the mastering engineer called back, mystified by the volume level. The levels exceeded the theoretical maximum possible on compact disc audio. In
other words, Jet Generation is the loudest CD in history.” It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve encountered the notion of loudness equaling greatness.
Sure enough, the Guitar Wolf album is nasty sounding, and I mean that in the very best possible sense. Songs verge on being parodies of punk, guitarwolfvocalwolf Seiji borrows riffs from the two Johnnys (Ramone and Thunders), and his singing justifies the title of the seventh track, “Roaring Blood.” The mix is way oversaturated, like when you record something onto a cassette and set the levels too high. Clearly, over the course of six CDs, Guitar Wolf have put their mind to the task of really perfecting the concept of the crappy-sounding album. And, with Jet Generation, I think it’s fair to say they’ve essentially achieved maximum possible crappiness. It scores a perfect 10 in the crappiness-of-sound category.
But, see, Guitar Wolf are a regular (albeit mildly psychotic) guitar-bass-drums rock band, who excel at the most primal sort of no-frills trash-rock. And as far as volume goes, I just don’t think they can compete with today’s techno or “electronica” artists because, decibel for decibel, electronic equipment just seems capable of producing louder sounds than traditional rock’n’roll gear. For example, 808 State are probably the loudest band I’ve ever heard in my so-called adult life— the bass frequencies at a show they played in Boston several years ago actually made my testicles hurt. It really was like getting kicked in the balls, which is something that hadn’t happened to me since I was a kid. Actually, it was more like that feeling you get 20 or 30 minutes after you’ve been kicked in the nuts— that sort of dull, aching pain.
More recently— a couple of weeks ago, in fact— this Finnish avant-garde band called Pan Sonic played Boston, and they were even louder than 808 State. It was just this wall of unwavering electronic noise, sans beat, barely even pulsing in anything resembling a rhythm. And people were standing there trying to pretend they were enjoying themselves, even though the only positive thing I could figure out about it was that nobody in their right mind was going to try to start a conversation with you.
Which brings me to Germany’s Atari Teenage Riot, and their new album 60 Second Wipeout, a less relentlessly assaultive collection than their U.S. debut Burn, Berlin, Burn in that this time they’re applying the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t aesthetic of dub to one track, and inviting NYC rappers the Arsonists to freestyle on a couple numbers. In a way, though, ATR have a lot in common with Guitar Wolf. They’re both garage bands with very idiosyncratic notions of what it means to be punk, at least partially based on the whole idea of Loud Fast Rules. Guitar Wolf dress like the Ramones but sound like an English-as-a-second-language Stooges; ATR use samplers, loops, drum machines, and, on the album, Kathleen Hanna, to create noisy collages of hardcorespeedmetal guitars, breakneck breakbeats, and lots of yelling about revolution and stuff. Atari Teenage Riot do have an edge loudness-wise over Guitar Wolf because they’ve got all that techno gear. But both bands are fighting an unwinnable battle, because audio technology has reached a point where a totally unrocking band like Pan Sonic can kick anybody’s ass in the loudness competition with all but one finger tied behind their backs. The whole notion that “loud” = “great” is dead. I mean, otherwise we’d have to concede that 808 State are a better rock band than Led Zeppelin because Plant and Page can only make your ears hurt, whereas 808 State will actually get inside your pants and hurt your testicles. (Which I suppose makes 808 the real lemon squeezers.)
So, now you’ve got bands like Guitar Wolf and Atari Teenage Riot mixing their albums in order to create the illusion of massive loudness, even though they can’t really make their songs any louder than anyone else’s. It’s what you might call virtual volume— which makes even very loud arguments over who’s the loudest band in the world virtually irrelevant.