Merzbow / Keiji Haino / Balazs Pandi

An Untroublesome Defencelessness

In applying live drums to a noise-based set-up, it can sometimes sound as though the musicians involved are attempting to nail down water. Noise is pliable, malleable. It oozes and groans, sputtering out potentially volatile spasms of sound which may refuse to cooperate or negotiate in a socially acceptable manner. Drums, whether by design or implication, will bestow some form of order and coherence. Rhythm, however skewed or fried, will eventually emerge from a drummer’s performance. The drummer can either attempt to match their noise-making partner through sheer effort of endurance, possibly evaporating to a viscous liquid on their stool in the process, or they can respond through improvisatory intuition. Either way, it’s a tricky balancing act and I’m not sure whether Merzbow and Hungarian percussionist Pandi have quite pulled it off here, despite their sterling previous efforts as part of RareNoise’s two Cuts releases of 2013 and 2015.

Those two releases found the two players joined first by free jazz titan Mats Gustafsson and then also, on last years Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper, by Thurston Moore, thus enabling a quartet of fairly devastating power. An Untroublesome Defencelessness is something else entirely. Keiji Haino has entered proceedings and it can feel as though Pandi now only has ears for this new arrival. Much of this release focuses around a spiky duo dialogue between Pandi and Haino while Merzbow sullenly sits in a far-off corner, emitting the odd splurt of hostile grumbling but generally relegating himself to mildly abrasive background texture as his smitten comrades parry and spar in heated exchange.

It is this sense of nervy restraint and wired tension which makes this such a rewarding listen. Visceral physicality lies in the conceptual make-up of a power trio such as this: anxiety borne out through the individuals’ performances as each player wonders if they are the odd man out. There is something malcontent and submissive about this record as it toys with notions of embedding noise tactics deep within blues-rock sensibilities. Pandi lets loose with ferociously sustained drum batteries while Haino wrenches out guitar notes like piercing pointillist shards, one sickly sweet and perfectly poised punctuation point after another gradually escalating until they swarm together in a gorged glut of frenzied interjections. Where once there might have been a bass guitar or keyboard, there is Merzbow and his near void which hisses and spits like some disgruntled disembodied entity unhappy with its new home.

Across the two multi-part pieces here, this tension and glum hostility is never quite resolved. Haino occasionally makes light through his playing, finishing the second part of ‘Why is the courtesy of the prey always confused with the courtesy of the hunters…’ with a twisty creepy-crawly spider up the shadowy staircase horror riff. ‘How differ the instructions on the left from the instructions on the right? (Part I)’ even begins with a good old-fashioned power chord which swiftly degenerates into more group rumination. Given its pedigree, this album could easily have been a straight-up no-nonsense noise-rock banger. But it turns out to be way more interesting and maladjusted than that. An Untroublesome Defencelessness is the sound of three unique musicians bringing their usual tricks to the studio only to find that they don’t quite gel together. This record doesn’t quite work and it wants you to know that it doesn’t quite work. Its success comes from the hidden and possibly unsympathetic agendas these players bring to their skewed gestalt.

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