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Does Noise Rock Still Shock? Melt-Banana & The Decline of Noise-Power
Daniel Ross , November 12th, 2010 11:28

With his favourite live band Melt-Banana recently returning to play in the UK, Daniel Ross ponders whether noise rock is now comfortable rather than confrontational

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In October of this year, Melt-Banana returned to the UK to play live. This, for me at least, was comforting news. The veteran Japanese act has been pinging around the world regularly for nearly 20 years now, and their arrival on these shores is always a popular draw. On a personal level, the first time I saw them in 2005 (I know, late starter) resulted in me vowing never to see any live music ever again, for the medium had reached its apogee in my eyes. That didn’t last, luckily, and subsequent shows every couple of years have always chimed resonantly with me. They are my favourite live band ever. The reason? Noise.

London’s Highbury Garage was the venue of 2005’s show. Unaware of how on earth this kind of music could even be performed (a bizarre parallel they share with Karlheinz Stockhausen), thoughts of how they might make such a brutally exact sound with only guitar, bass, drums and pixie shrieks distracted me from the moment I’d bought a ticket. I was destined for disappointment, obviously, having over-analysed and convinced myself that it was impossible for that sound to be satisfactorily deployed. Or so I thought.

In the event, it wasn’t the technique that was impressive, it was the way Melt-Banana used noise as a tool in their arsenal. Microscopic detail was framed by the cold sheath of silence, ringing through as the ultimate contrasting power to the utter violence of the sound. Noise as I knew it had become a rather rewarding science, something to pore over and assess for its successes.

Melt-Banana’s return is a time for celebration of a uniquely physical and, importantly, noisy band. Bizarrely, the prospect of such an aural assault is actually rather comforting – and that’s potentially a real problem. Has noise and violence in music - whether it's precise like Melt-Banana or just plain aggressively sloppy like, say, Napalm Death - become de riguer? Can we no longer be shocked by the power of noise? Are we all just numb to it nowadays or something, for Chrissakes?!

Actually, Napalm Death are a good example. Grindcore legends such as those Brummie behemoths are now looked upon with wistfulness rather than the fear and confusion that they engendered when they crawled from the womb; a disfigured and ugly child of punk rock, syllabic riffs and urban decay. It’s so easy to forget that this music is not supposed to make us affectionate toward its creators. The same goes for countless others, from Electric Wizard to Extreme Noise Terror. What was once destructive and akin to partying with bigger, uglier boys has turned into a beneficial experience - noise as a simple and acceptable badge of moderate honour.

Examining the modern exponents of noise reveals a definite sway towards melodicism and digestibility. Volume (a very different beast to noise, and a whole other article in itself) is freely deployed to potentially destroy the innards of concert attendees, but noise itself has waned, warped and become something else. Fuck Buttons, Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never are all currently heralded, but there is little in them that could wantonly confuse, terrify or assault the listener in the way their reception has led us to believe. In fact, Quietus pilot John Doran has pointed out that Oneohnotrix Point Never’s latest release (the fine Returnal) begins with what could be interpreted as a joke on all those who’ve bought into this new and easier noise; 'Nil Admirari' is a proper noise-out with flaming breath and acrid approximations of tonality. A hideous, brilliant piece.

Fuck Buttons are possibly the most obvious examples when it comes to the new breed of noise. Again, it’s mostly volume. Much of their work revolves around mammoth passages of nigh-on-imperceptible growth in volume and texture, rather than anything that could be considered anywhere near as offensive as their name. There are perhaps only a few successful artists left that actually use noise as a weapon, such as HEALTH and Boris, for example. Of course, there will always be a healthy hardcore of noise artists that will be cited as leading lights, but they suffer from that same familiarity; the readiness to welcome noise with reverence reserved for something as innocuous as a tartan rug. Michael Gira, Merzbow, Jesu and Khanate have long since been established, digested and accepted. Impressive and noteworthy as they are, the result of this continuing comfort is detrimental to the progression of noise.

With the difference between the comfortable noise of now and the disgusting noise of before defined, it’s interesting to see a newer breed of artist emerging that occupy a surprisingly happy middle ground. HEALTH have already been mentioned, while closer to home, the anti-melodic meanderings of Rolo Tomassi have found a remarkably receptive audience. The most exciting prospects amongst this new noise are Canada’s mysteriously cold Women. Their second LP, Public Strain, acknowledges the power of noise, but impeccably pits it against dark melodies, obscured just enough to make you work for it. In fact, they use their unkillable tunefulness (Dick Dale guitars and bare vocal harmonies) as a springboard for something more confounding and something scarier. Dissonance and well-placed shocking noise works approximately a gazillion times better than the stately build-ups of Fuck Buttons or Emeralds (look to Mogwai’s 'Like Herod' for a warning from history), and Women are the very best at maximising the potential contrasts.

So now when I watch Melt-Banana, I will be happy. Not frightened; not nervous of any serious danger; but happy that they’re back. It has become easy to take solace in noise. This isn’t wrong, exactly, but it is increasingly difficult to be genuinely unsettled by its power alone. Familiarity explains the appeal of volume as a stopgap, but the future lies in the successful re-contextualising of noise’s innate power. Melt-Banana’s albums have always hinted at that deftness and control alongside their already-telepathic bursts, but they’ve yet to deliver the superhuman, dynamic recording they are capable of. Would it be too much to hope that they will produce this record in the coming years?

It would be nice to say that it’s unimportant as long as the live show is still majestic, but the desire to be challenged, beaten about the ears and petrified by what comes out of the speakers is key to the progression of noise. Whether that album comes or not, there are at least signs of progression and, hopefully, we won't be comfortable for long. Who ever wanted easier listening, anyway?

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a person
Nov 12, 2010 8:13pm

i blame hipsters. but then again i blame them for everything. also would like to add Whitehouse as another band that have lost their "shock value" in recent times...

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Nov 13, 2010 11:50am

I think it's an elementary error when dealing with noise or noise-rock that its intent is to shock - back in the '80s, perhaps, but now there's plenty of people who like this stuff just for what it is. The idea of shock for the sake of shock is totally overrated, anyway. People that are shocked by stuff don't go back for seconds.

In terms of forward thinking noise, there's still a bit of it around - off the top of my head The Rita, Locrian, recent Prurient, Halflings, Yellow Tears and Cowards are all doing good stuff. But I dunno, is this article talking about noise, or noise-rock? Two very different things - and if you're trying to draw parallels between Emeralds and Napalm Death and Women, you're not really comparing like with like.

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Nov 15, 2010 7:55pm

I'm with Louis, I find this whole a bit weird not to mention slightly smug.

How exactly can you be 'shocked' by something you're volutarily choosing to listen to (well maybe the first time)? I thought the only people who wore their liking of this sort thing as a 'badge of honour' were childish teeds who got some perverse pleasure out of annoying other playing music they knew they'd hate.

Can't say I'm overly familiar the a lot of 'noise' acts, but having listening to NZ acts the punk noise of The Dead C & epic drones of Birchville Cat Motel, both magical in their own ways. Nothing 'shocking' though.

I'd never heard Melt Banana before, they're not shocking in the slightest, but who cares as they sound utterly thrilling. I've been missing out!

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Nov 16, 2010 9:26am

Hey, it's just noise. Hey, it's just a band called Melt-Banana. Melt-Banana! I think fun has always been more important than shock. Did you really feel shocked by Merzbow? Or did you have a real (shocking) good time listening to him?

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Daniel Ross
Nov 16, 2010 9:50am

In reply to Louis:

Louis - I was going for noise rather than noise rock (a different title was used initially, must've gotten subbed along the way somewhere).

I'm trying to argue that shock value is surely one of the main objectives of noise, at least initially. It's really exciting, like watching a good horror movie. When you say that the intent to shock is gone now that we're all accustomed to noise, that's kind-of the problem. When a band like Women use noise as a tool to polarise their more tuneful stuff, it's still a decent shock - moreso than when Fuck Buttons or someone similar just use volume to create an unsettling effect. And because shock is the aspect I'm after, I think it's fair to draw those parallels between Emeralds and Napalm Death and Women. In my head at least, there's a line connecting them.

Thanks for the list of bands too, I've got some exploring to do.

Andrew - you will not be disappointed by M-B. Enjoy!

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Nov 17, 2010 11:05am

Ok, I take the point about the effect noise can have. It's just I've always associated 'shock' with dicks who thought they're really clever geting a reaction out of people by playing such 'crazeee' music.

I think the thing you're missing is that a lot of people were never intending to go for this effect. 'Noise' seems to be as diverse as any type of music. A lot of the drone stuff just seems to be trying to be anthemic, create an atmosphere, be beautiful. That's just as valid as intensity & aggression.

If the drone stuff appeals, as well as Birchville Cat Motel (Now recording as 'Our love will destroy the world')Rosy Parlane on Touch creates some georgous dronesoff his laptop, plus the latest Dead C album is one of their finest.

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Nov 19, 2010 4:34pm

There's quite a good chapter from Simon Reynolds in 'Audio Culture' which addresses a similar topic. I googled it and it looks as if you can read it online.

I think it might be a bit premature to suggest that noise has lost it's power entirely. It's just that the people who seek out those sorts of bands don't really shock easily, and they're unlikely to end up on Radio 1 (though I did hear Sleigh Bells on commercial radio which was sort of interesting).

Can't say I'd put Fuck Buttons down as noise. They just seem to play loudly and with a lot of distortion. The last thing I saw that you might consider 'pure' noise was Russell Haswell, and to be honest it got a bit tedious. I think that noise only really works as a contrast / accompaniment to 'music' / 'not-noise'. Just my opinion mind.

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Pissteeth Jenkins
Jan 8, 2011 12:14pm

Hey hey!

FYI Melt Banana already have "delivered the superhuman, dynamic recording they are capable of" in Cellscape. After touring the entire western world & all its loyal toilet bowls (or should that be bowels?) they usually open their live aural assault-extravaganza with the first 2 tunes from this & it seems to perfectly capture the sonic complexities so wonderfully deranged in the guitarist's 1001 FX pedals live! I would also suggest that on this album at least the songtitles are easily as 'shocking' or impressionable as their sound. The longer & more absurd the better in my opinion. Also if you consider a city as chaotically tech-savy as Toyko i would argue that to the Japanese they probably wouldn't be considered that unusual or shocking. Sorry i'm always late to these threads, peace

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Tim Layton
Jan 12, 2011 9:10am

Ah, but how much of 'Metal Machine Music' can you get through? I've only ever made it to side 3.

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