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LIVE REPORT: Harsh Noise Wall Festival III
Russell Williams , May 22nd, 2014 14:39

Russell Williams reports from Les Instants Chavirés in Montreuil on an excellent evening of relentless sonic sludge. Photo writer's own.

It's an admirable dedication to extreme sonic experimentation that sees a healthy fistful of aficionados turn down the allure of Parisian boulevard cafés on the most beautiful Friday night of the year so far. Instead, they opt to head east, out of the city limits to a shabby suburb, to stand in a darkened room and endure one of the most brutal and challenging avant-garde listening experiences imaginable.

As its name suggests, HNW Fest III is the third installment of a series of events, organised by leading French purveyors and enthusiasts of radical noise, Gregory Henrion, aka Å, and Romain Perrot, also known as Vomir, that aims to show off different forms of current Harsh Noise Wall performance. The impetus for this show is the arrival of legendary US harsh noise performer Richard Ramirez and his Black Leather Jesus collective in Europe, and the bill features not only a performance from them both, but also a series of live collaborations.

Harsh Noise Wall, or HNW, is a somewhat slippery term and can give a slightly misleading impression. It can certainly be a "harsh" listening experience in terms of volume, noisiness and its distance from what we normally describe as "music", particularly its intense physicality, how it embraces both white noise and somewhat unpalatable frequencies. It is, however, at its most interesting when uncomfortable harshness steadies into its its "wallness": at its best a literal consistent, unflinching and enveloping wall of monolithic noise. Perrot describes the essentials of his aesthetic as "no ideas, no change, no development, no entertainment, no remorse", an approach that naturally puts the genre at some distance from Phil Spector's melodic crowd-pleasing Wall Of Sound Christmas efforts.

HNW at its unrelenting best is here exemplified by an early set from Vomir and Ramirez, the latter performing as Werewolf Jerusalem. Both men sit cross-legged centre stage, hunched with hands moving imperceptibly over their electronic kit, the former providing a crackling, lower-frequency rumble intertwined with Ramirez's higher pitched tone of rough noise. Tissa Mawartyassari, a BLJ associate who performs solo, is similar in approach, generating a minimal static drone with two pedals that produce a bass-led physicality akin to the rumbling of a métro train passing close underground. Neither set goes anywhere. This is not a criticism, but the very point: such colossal lack of progression is crucial to the overall HNW experience, creating a point of implicit resistance, to the unending flux of contemporary society, one that can encourage, even force, the listener to stop, focus and contemplate exclusively on the static intensity of the noise. There is more to this stuff than sheer loudness.

Other sides of more provocative, and more nosebleed-inducing noise are also showcased tonight in sets that make such meditative contemplation more difficult. Henrion lays down another rumbling sonic wall against which Sean Matzus, performing as TheNightProduct, overlays a brutally acute noise that seems intended to disrupt, unsettle and subvert his collaborator's sound. Svartvit, from the Netherlands, is the night's most unorthodox and atypically energetic performer, more "harsh" than "wall", creating anarchic, chaotic sounds by rubbing his contact mic over Les Instants Chavirés' carpet-covered stage and risking serious injury by repeatedly plunging his mic and fist vigorously into a water-filled beer glass. Paul Connolly, Caustic Screaming Butterfly, is the only performer to make explicit use of computer-based noise, and while it is as extreme as anything else tonight, the result is actually an overall slightly gentler and more ambient sound, and the evening is all the better for the note of subtlety it introduces.

Black Leather Jesus, who have recently become renowned in noise circles for their minimalistic noise made using found junk metal as well as their provocative use of sexual imagery, headline with a set of static noise that befits the occasion. Their contribution is pitched midway between the "harsh" and the "wall" with Ramirez, Matzus and Connolly steadily building tension to almost unbearable levels with their textured drones. There is, however, no pay-off: tension is all. If BLJ's noise provokes any kind of contemplation, it is inescapably angst-ridden, their sound, gradually building to a monumental heaviness, is the soundtrack to 4am night terrors in a manner that recalls the recent output of Alan Dubin's GNAW.

The evening is rounded off with a collaboration between all seven of tonight's performers, who take to the stage in what amounts to a contemporary HNW supergroup, Svartvit this time adding massively distorted vocals. While there is naturally something faintly ridiculous about the sight of so many fully-grown adults squatting on stage, curled intently over electronic boxes, it's a fitting end to a strangely uplifting evening. The silence and gentle spring breeze that follows comes as a blessed relief, brought into sharper definition by that which came before.