The Second Summer Of Hate: NOISE ROCK NOW!
, March 31st, 2016 07:34
Carrying on Noise Rock Week, Noel Gardner looks to the current day and constructs a fearsome primer for the fans of the sludgy, lo-fi, ear-disrespecting... and modern. GNOD portrait by Sam Huddlestone
The logical endpoint of pondering ‘noise rock’ as a concept in 2016 – well, probably at any point, but more so every year – is the acceptance that all rock music is noise, and that all noise rocks. A stance which would certainly take the pressure out of any attempt to define the usefulness of the term. Genre boundaries are didactic social constructs – just write about anything you like instead! Then go to Waterstones and put Wayne Rooney’s various autobiographies in the ‘Smart Thinking’ section!
Cop-outs aside, it’s fair to state that people’s definitions of ‘noise rock’ include a wide range of approaches, which may even appear oppositional to one another. From some of the most astoundingly skilled and precise musicians you might ever witness, to ones who sound like they started learning their instrument earlier that day. Ones driven by rhythm, perhaps even operating as club music to an extent; ones with no discernible rhythm at all. Ones with a distinct anthemic streak in their music, maybe even a certain commercial nous; ones who couldn’t write a tune the milkman could whistle to save their lives. Even if the milkman also played in a noise rock band. And if their lives were worth saving.
Whilst trying to maintain practical limits, I feel that it’s preferable to talk of noise rock in inclusive terms. Not only because this gives me the chance to rep for more great bands, but also because that inclusivity is healthy for underground rock. In the UK at least, this is increasingly reflected in gig lineups and festival bills and label rosters and friendships – assembled on the basis of a shared view of the world, rather than what people sound like or listen to. Lessening, in turn, the prospect of stagnation and insularity. (One could note, here, that this subculture is still predominantly made up of white people from a broadly similar cultural – if not necessarily class – background. Whatever the reasons for this, it’s bigger than noise rock, to coin a phrase.)
The United Kingdom is a prime place to kick this off, indeed – not least because it highlights what pleasing sea changes have occurred in that regard. Writing recently about the 1986 incarnation of noise rock, relevant UK groups were conspicuous by their scarcity. It seems faintly absurd that the country which birthed The Who and Black Sabbath and Hawkwind and Throbbing Gristle and The Fall and Discharge could have ever lacked for weird, loud, abrasive underground rock music, but it wasn’t until relevant American import records started making a splash in indie/punk/goth type circles that their influence began trickling down. Over time, this has evolved into a scene with its own idioms, humour and identity, and enough killer bands that I fully expect to get ragged on for not mentioning some of them.
Some of the UK’s best noise rock releases of recent years have been on the Box label, from Newcastle. By no means confined to one style (its first releases were a split single between Mancunian psych band Gnod and drone doom locals Bong, followed by Richard Dawson’s The Magic Bridge LP), the feathers in its cap include the self-titled debut LP by Luminous Bodies (wailing psychedelic sludge with two drummers and a Melvins/Butthole Surfers sense of the absurd); a full-length tape album by Queer’d Science (confrontational distilled energy in an Arab On Radar/Ex Models style; broke up before its release but, pleasingly, have at least one gig booked for 2016); Foot Hair’s 2015 release, again self-titled (heavy, vile dirge punk which borders on sludge metal at times but generally hails noise rock’s mid-80s cult heroes) and Casual Sect's The Hidden Persuaders (lo-fi conspiracy theory punk slop). Relevant grease in the pipeline for this year includes London-dwelling Kraut hammerers Casual Nun.
All these bands are relatively new on the scene, even if their members aren’t. There are, though, plenty of British noise rock bands of a decade or more’s standing: the adaptable multiple-drummer live treat of Action Beat; Art Of Burning Water’s brilliant Voivod-influenced prog-meets-thrash; Hey Colossus, whose recent Radio Static High album finds them bypassing the ultraheavy in favour of spacerock sweetness and 90s alt vibes, but is very fine for that; and Leeds duo That Fucking Tank, whose sharp, Oxes-ish instrumental racket is all the more impressive for being made with only drums and baritone guitar. Including bands who reformed after time apart also gives us Terminal Cheesecake – late 80s/early 90s London heavy psych imbibers, regrouping in 2013 – and Ramleh, hate-fuelled power electronics in their original early 80s incarnation but now on a crushingly bleak psych-noise tip (check recent LP Circular Time for proof). Leeds’ Bilge Pump and Bristolians The Heads still exist, but tend to hibernate for up to 18 months at a time.
The noise-weighted end of noise rock is home to Guttersnipe, a Leeds duo who feature one of defunct Locust-esque hardcore aces Etai Keshiki and who submerge you in a swirling void of guitar&synth&vocal screech OTT mania; the astoundingly Neanderthal guitar/drum grot of Makakarooma; and, perhaps, Sex Swing. The latter of these were formed in 2014 by Daniel Chandler, himself an established presence in British noise rock as frontman of Hunting Lodge and Dethscalator. Sex Swing, which also contains Mugstar and Part Chimp personnel, indulges their freek vibe by way of squalling free jazz sax (from noted improv head Colin Webster) and clattery electronics.
Other bands are lithe enough to be noise rock sometimes, and other times not. The aforementioned Gnod have released a quadrillion dope records (or tapes or whatever) of ever-evolving psychedelic visions, but I might have been pushing it to shoehorn them into this overview… until Mirror, their brand new LP. This is a three-track, 34-minute thudder that touches on the disassociative murk of 2015’s Infinity Machines but pairs it with huge, monolithic riffs. Folks into early Swans, Hair Police and Drunk In Hell are pointed this way.
Ah yes, Drunk In Hell: the alpha and omega of UK noise rock, and beta than your favourite band to boot. Save for the on/off presence of a saxophonist in their live lineup (both as enjoyable as the other, just different), they’re a testament to the awesome power of doing one thing, over and over again, and making it work because it’s done with brutal, searing force. A band whose rep has flourished by post-live show word of mouth more than their (almost nonexistent) records: something that could also be said of Leeds’ intense hardcore turncoats No Form, Brightonian teen adults Lower Slaughter, the underrated, loosely US Maple-y Repo Man from Bristol and one of tQ's favourite bands, Sly & The Family Drone, whose shows are wont to feature audience participation and members’ testicles escaping their underwear.
What is lacking in Great British Noise Rock are bands which regularly command large crowds, by which I mean a few hundred or more. This isn’t to suggest such a development is essential – it may not even be desirable – and is partly down to the way North American underground rock has been (and remains) fetishised in the UK, helped along by music press rhetoric and festivals like ATP. Hard, either way, to think of any bands with a pull close to Swans, Shellac, Pissed Jeans, Lightning Bolt, Melvins or (Japanese, thus painted in an exotic hue of their own) Boredoms and Melt-Banana. All of whom thrive on their own terms at this point, and if not umbilically separated from ‘the underground’ don’t require its lifeblood.
It is, of course, hardly the case nowadays that a relatively well-known indie label offer a certain fast-track to success. Metz, Sub Pop signees from Toronto, have made a decent name for themselves with two albums of perky dirge; Seattle labelmates So Pitted aren’t getting as much praise as the early 90s AmRep-style bluecollar holler of recent debut album Neo deserves. DFA Records must have had Black Dice somewhat in mind when they picked up Boston’s Guerilla Toss for their newie, Eraser Stargazer – whose shrill, maximalist no wave is surely way too abrasive for indie-dance crossover consumption, no matter how keenly they ride a groove. Dope Body being on Drag City, or KEN Mode on French metal label Season Of Mist, or Kowloon Walled City on Neurot probably scored them some sweet review action, but not much more.
American (and Canadian) noise rock remains just as tricky to define as its British counterpart. Metal looms large in its DNA – take American Heritage, who did a split record with Mastodon before the latter blew up, or Full Of Hell, graduates from tuff-lad metalcore to the sort of building-levelling noise/grind that hooks up with Merzbow and The Body for collabs. Beat-driven EBM/industrial is represented by Pop. 1280, bringing an early 90s goth-club crossover vibe to the eclectic but significant Sacred Bones label, and fellow New Yorkers Uniform. Psychedelia is touched on/roughed up by the magnificent Destruction Unit and practically as magnificent Quebec dudes No Negative.
Plenty of new US hardcore is discordant and whacked out enough to pass as noise rock, too: Olympia’s thug-psych FX abusers Gag, the unruly UKDIY-meets-demotape-80s-HC of Violence Creeps, and Total Abuse, Texan bozos who lace their feedback-ridden stomp with OTT power electronics aesthetics. They’re also the only band I’m aware of that had to cancel a tour because they irritated their driver so much he refused to take them any further.
Similarly in thrall, or so it appears, to the Whitehouses/Peter Sotoses/torn-up jazzmags found under hedges of this world are Rectal Hygienics, from Chicago. Achieving the near-impossible for a 21st century noise rock band – causing controversy through their music – around the release of their Ultimate Purity LP last year, I’m still largely in the dark as to their supposed misogynistic grossness, because I can barely make out any lyrics on the record. It’s pretty decent as slimy homages to Brainbombs and Rusted Shut go, but if you’d rather lessen the risk of giving your patronage to arseholes, other bands are available. Couch Slut, a NYC quartet, dropped one of the most powerful noise rock releases in forever last year: My Life As A Woman, which I’ve said my piece on here and here. Or, if you favour a wild party din over unnerving doomed-out catharsis, try No Babies, whose words are righteous and carried on wings of free jazz, no wave and punk.
Some people, let’s call them noise rock fundamentalists – hypothetical readers who will be cheesed off at some of the stuff I’m forcing under this umbrella – would consider danceable noise rock an oxymoron. In which case, its burgeoning crossover with techno may be cause for despair. Not round here, though! As well as a band members with an electronic sideline (Basic House is the solo vehicle of Drunk In Hell vocalist Bish; most of Gnod and some of Destruction Unit loop with impunity on their respective tape labels, Tesla and Ascetic House), there’s $hit & $hine, formed by ex-Todd frontman Craig Clouse and progressing, over the years, from percussive experimental rinseouts to full-tilt dubby electronica. Meanwhile, in Australia, one of the more successful rock-as-techno gambits of recent years has come from My Disco, who over time have distilled their mechanical postpunk into pristine slabs of eerie, hypnotic repetition. Last year’s Severe album was reviewed in florid fashion by this ‘parish’.
Moving over to Europe, we find bands who similarly stretch this genre definition, in a wide variety of ways. Årabrot you may well already know if yer hanging round here: the Norwegian band and tQ have joined hands across the North Sea on multiple occasions, the release of latest album The Gospel being no exception. Their ambition has resulted in an album that recalls Nick Cave, Faith No More and Metallica (or did for this writer, anyway), but retains the bulk of what made Revenge and I Rove, among others, such a blast. Italy’s Zu are even more firmly established, active since the late 90s; many before and after them have sought to marry jazz and metal, but few if any have nailed it like Massimo Pupillo and cohorts. Selvhenter, five women from Denmark, feature violin and brass but are pointedly guitar-free, and depending on where you checked in on their discography, you might wonder why they’re here at all. The answer is in tracks like ‘Tribute’ and ‘Stirb Langsam’, improbable conflations of jazz, freeform rock and sludge.
Sweden has harboured Brainbombs for nearly 30 years, and to some they’re the platonic ideal of noise rock, but it’s not all loathsome serial killer paeans for these guys. Two of them play in No Balls, who have released four albums since 2009 and deal in cranium-numbing repeato-rawk: Brainbombs via (Glenn) Branca, taken to extreme on recent tape Crutches. Drajan, of both bands, also plays in Regler – whose output to date has attempted to push the guitar/bass/drums format to the limits of noise – with Spanish extremist Mattin. Who voracious tQ readers may know from Billy Bao, lauded a couple of weeks back for The Lagos Sessions, a genuinely arresting sonic portrait of Nigeria’s capital. More easily tagged as noise rock on their first two LPs, Dialectics Of Shit and May 08, later Billy Bao releases have tended more towards field recordings and extreme ambience, but still find the time to unleash moments of satisfyingly Stoogean splatter.
There’s relatively straight-up noise rock lurking on the continent too, such as in Finland: Hebosagil (metal-tinged with a groove, not a mile off early Clutch), Throat (corrupted blues and riff overload a la, say, God Bullies) and Baxter Stockman (skeletal, bass-led menace, akin to the first few Shellac singles getting a shoeing by Today Is The Day). France, pilloried by stereotype enthusiasts for a nationwide inability to rock, has in fact produced Les Thugs, Chambre Jaune and Sloy over the years – and, more recently, Sofy Major, who crunch with anthemic purpose on last year’s Waste. Why, it’s even pretty singalongable – and in English, to boot.
Enough! Enough for a full year of close listening, should you choose to accept that mission. A steady diet of nothing but noise rock is almost certainly unhealthy, and may turn your skin crocodilian and your scowl permanent. It does, however, offer more variety than you might have believed, and is a subculture that’s home to both disreputable fuckers and brilliant visionaries.
Like what you've heard so far? London's amazing Raw Power festival features Part Chimp, Melt-Banana, Selvhenter, Lower Slaughter, Mugstar, Sly & The Family Drone and many other fine bands not even mentioned in this article...