[Ed. Note: In Please Enjoy Responsibly, columnist Raymond Cummings tracks down the best noise music of the month, while keeping an eye out for the best of recent months and saluting noise triumphs of yesteryear.]
No more bullshit, no more half-stepping: Spring has sprung. People are dressing horribly and everyone queues up for milkshakes. Cruising the strip is suddenly hip again. Festival season dominates. Life feels equally full of doom and possibility; there’s a lot of laughter, idle talk.
Perhaps you’d appreciate a few recommendations as to what to blast — treble up, windows down — while cruising the strip or hiding in your apartment. Yes, we thought you might.
INTO THE WAAAAAAYBACK MACHINE: PETE SWANSON
There was a time, early on in the reign of the Yellow Swans, when the duo’s output was difficult to obtain. Releases arrived in tiny editions, housed in slipcovers and floppy-disc cases, with hand-illustrated, photocopied artwork. One might be fortunate enough to score product at shows, through distros, or via Collective Jyrk, the band’s now-defunct imprint. There wasn’t really a “Yellow Swans signature sound,” per se, at that point — even if there had been the point would’ve been moot, given the mind-bending number of collaborations Pete Swanson and Gabriel Mindel Saloman engaged in — and while the music was honed to some extent, it emerged raw, unpredictable, and gloriously varied. The cross-pollinated majesty of Bring the Neon War Home, the first Live During War Crimes entry, and Man With Potential lay far, far off in the future, over a horizon nobody was watching yet.
Gnarly Shocks (Collective Jyrk, 2003), among Swanson’s first solo forays, stands apart from the limited-run forest of this period, in large part because it’s so fucking shrill. By its very definition, noise is penetrating, polarizing, and as immobilizing as a dog’s musky scent; that much is true regardless of the volume at which it is experienced. Swanson is certainly cognizant of this, but on Gnarly Shocks his approach is a minimalist one with what seems to be a limited palette of sounds, most of which are tuned at a high, excruciating frequency that might seem more appropriate to the equipment in an ear doctor’s office, a professional dog whistle, or those effects LPs some gearheads buy to pilot expensive stereo systems. Which is to say that if one hasn’t been exposed to tones of this nature – if, say, it has never been necessary for a dentist to drill one of your teeth en route to filling a cavity — then the initial listen to Gnarly Shocks might be an uncomfortable one.
It’s only over time that immunization to the tea-kettle whinnies occurs, and this CDr’s other maneuvers are revealed: the exquisite micro-tonal soldering jags that suggest Etch-A-Sketch lines that vanish as soon as they appear, razor-blade carvings through expertly concentrated squirts of distortion, thin fields of static brought into focus or dialed back from quarter-moment to quarter-moment in order to serve the momentum. The dominant “shock” aspect of these seven cuts can obscure how achingly stage-managed and precise every move made here is; the experience is a like hearing a fastidious shortwave radio enthusiast masterfully manipulating his set, eking out an anti-symphony of sorts.
And finally, a disclaimer: I don’t often have cause to literally evoke the name of this column, but here I’m going to do so, emphatically: really, seriously, please enjoy Gnarly Shocks responsibly, because its effect linger with you. In revisiting it on laptop speakers without headphones over the past few weeks, and several times on the day of this writing, my ears feel really, really weird and tingly, and I’ve necessarily staggered my listens by stepping away from the keyboard and doing other things: making meals, reading the New Yorker, taking walks outside, etc. Indulge, yes — if you can get hold of a copy of this, and I hope you can – but be careful.
NOISE-RAP MIXTAPE OF THE MONTH: THE DEVIL
A tip of the hat to the esteemed Nathan Golub, who introduced me to this mystery crew. Here at Please Enjoy Responsibly, hip-hop of all varieties is constantly on the menu, be it knuckleheaded thug shit, soulquarian uplift, absurdist art rap, or whatever sub-genre Kanye West slots into this week. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not necessarily rolling with The Devil for the tooled-up rhyme schemes or the hectic, swarming beats — not to shortchange or belittle them or anything, but they’re not the main attraction.
When Death Grips burst onto the scene a few years back, much of the talk centered on how the trio’s sound consisted in large part of samples stolen from YouTube and media et al., smelted and twisted into unrecognizable new shapes. Anyone who’s spent any time with Government Plates or The Money Store can confirm how awesome the results often are. But there’s something equally thrilling about the use of unmolested samples, strung together to tell a story or set a mood. Golden Age-era rap was all about this, and countless experimental groups and artists have exploited the concept over the last couple decade.
To be honest, that’s what thrills me about The Devil’s Violence mixtape (One Thousand Thieves): that willingness to bury the listener in breathless bursts of context (from news reports, movies, television, Bible readings, Johnny Cash, random FM radio stations) that attempt to justify the explicit content herein, and, maybe more daring, the willingness to stop a song cold, in mid-stride, to shovel even more context in — as if the songs are so bursting at the seams with societal angst that there’s ultimately no alternative but to play the tradgi-commercial break card, now and again. It makes for a dark, foreboding listen that stays with you. I sort of wish they’d drop the rap all together but keep the production and pile on an abundance of samples until the whole thing collapses under its own dystopian weight, but, you know, I’ll take what I can get.
NON-NYC NOISE ALBUMS OF THE MONTH: ANDREW BERNSTEIN, SHREDDED NERVE
For the past few weeks I’ve taken part in the Found Poetry Review’s “Oulipost” event, where a couple dozen poets follow a different set of instructions, every day, and mine our local newspaper for words that we can form into experimental poems. Sometimes the results are astonishing in an exceptional way; at others, one winds up with steaming piles of syntax. The overriding goal is to challenge common creative practice and discover new avenues into — and through — the imagination. I’m not a musician, but I imagine musicians are drawn to the art of the live score — inspired by or in reaction to a text, a film, a play, a fashion line, whatever — for similar reasons.
Sometimes this ends in triumph, as with No Age’s sick score for a Rodarte-related short or Deerhoof’s soaring Friend Opportunity closer “Look Away” — but then, sometimes, you’re Billy Corgan whiffing an accompaniment to Siddhartha for eight or nine hours straight in a Chicago tea house you own while the whole world laughs at you.
Andrew Bernstein is a Baltimore-based musician who performs in Horse Lords, but his solo electronic work is more much involving and likely to stick to the ribs; if you haven’t heard Unnatural Music for Cassette, with its slow, steamrollering approach to drone-based intensity, hop to it. Then clear some time in your schedule, shut off the phone, put the cat out, and delve into The Insane Root (Ehse), a self-reinterpretation of a score of incidental music Bernstein prepared to accompany the Baltimore Annex Theatre’s spring 2013 production of Macbeth.
Snaking, boom-lowering brownout drones consort with felicitous major chords and what sound like accelerated, distant police sirens. A loose, freaky skein of puttering effects – one of a few featured here – congeals to suggest a cover of “The Little Drummer Boy.” A pulse signal is lost in mounting breakers of foamy white-noise reverberation. On the front end, there’s clearly a lot of tinkering going on here, the adjustments of levels and the inflation of synthesizers; I’m reminded, in some ways, of Tim Gane’s Turn On release from some years back, except that in this case the seams are hardly as exposed, and after a time the listener is lost in the warm digital fog as Bernstein is. Bonus: you don’t even have to have read Macbeth to appreciate The Insane Root. Cheers.
Side A of Failing to Maintain (Chondritic Sound), the new-ish cassette from Shredded Nerve, takes no prisoners: this thing grinds, thumps, and flails like a Transformer being violently dismembered by hydraulics-juiced muscle cars bearing serious grudges. It’s just ugly and crazy, a crude sluice of aural obscenities striping paint off chasses, shattering chrome, taking a blowtorch to everything else that hasn’t already been wrecked. And for all that insanity, a rhythm lurks, lurching forth, dissolving then reconstructing itself in seeming perpetuity: Darth Vader trying and failing to beatbox via intergalactic CB radio. The unassuming Side B — every time Side A ends, there are always a couple moments when I’m sure that that’s it, it’s all over — flips the script with sub-dermal, ratcheting growls that, in concert with some very icky vocal samples, imply a strained sadomasochism before retaining the maniacal whiplash present on Side A. In the right hands, this sort of bait-and-switch never, ever gets old.
“NYC” NOISE ALBUM OF THE MONTH: ZAIMPH & YEK KOO
In every discipline — theology, sculpture, literary theory, whatever — there are names and brands that enthusiasts check for. Noise is no different, and I’m always interested to explore whatever paths Marcia Bassett is wandering. Solo or working in tandem, one can always rely on this Dutchess of Din — that’s Zaimph, to you — to stir and stroke the silt into trapdoor abstractions that collapse, discolor, or locate the fault lines within waking consciousness. Her metier is a sort of sopping drone that varies in heaviness and intensity but inevitably shifts something in the atmosphere. Sometimes this approach tips a bit too far or unspools unevenly, but when the balance is just right — as with the first of two Hototogisu collaborations with Burning Star Core, Double Leopards’ A Hole Is Through — the results can be sublime.
For L’interieur de la Vue (Obsolete Units), Bassett’s treehouse-of-terror electronics are joined in slow-motion battle by the jagged trumpets and effects of Helga Fassonaki, aka Yek Koo. A stare-down ensues: rumbling chords ringing and rippling, teasing the bowels; random streaks of frisson strafe the tundra sunset in rogue ICBM bursts; stabs of raw trumpet, huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf after chain-smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds but before the Three Little Pigs secure him to spit for roasting. All of this proceeds, again, at roughly the pace of dripping tree sap, and operates according to a fortunate contradiction: enough space exists in the recording that its coagulating constituent parts may be savored without overwhelming the whole, yet the whole is pitched at the perfect level of arrest. Bassett and Fassonaki hold our attention without smothering or upsetting the ambiance they’ve so carefully and telepathically base-lined. Bonus: it’s 10 hazy minutes of Zen that grind by, achingly, like 20. Bliss.