On Merzbow, or, How I fell in love with a sonic ear surgeon

typed for your pleasure on 17 October 2007, at 1.33 pm

Sdtrk: ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ by Pulp

So I’ve got Merzbow’s six-Cd boxset, Houjoue, right? Being a card-carrying fan(atic) of the music genre known as Noise/Power-electronics, I’d thought, ‘o lovely, you can’t go wrong with six disks of disparate dissonance!’ Well, perhaps you can. Believe me, I’m more disappointed than the rest of you.

My obsession with Masami Akita, aka Merzbow, can be traced back to 1993. I was in a band called Dole age (Smiths fans will get the reference), along with my best friend Sean, his future wife Sherilee, and Adam, a bloke we met at our local anime club. We were keen on alternative music, particularly Industrial and Shoegazer, so naturally we Frankensteined the two in order to make our own sound. As Throbbing gristle had disbanded in 1981 and weren’t making any more releases, and we were waiting on My bloody valentine’s followup to their epic Loveless*, Adam had a go into looking into other types of music, and the natural progression from Industrial was Noise. He picked up a disk entitled Great American Nude/Crash for hi-fi by someone called Merzbow, which we were pronouncing ‘murzboh’ until we discovered about a year later that it’s pronounced ‘mehrzbau’, after the series of related works by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. I borrowed the Cd for *coughs* an indefinite period, and I fell in love, noisy love. This was my first true exposure to the whole Japanese Noise scene, and it was shredding my mind, and to some extent, my ears.

At this point, I should probably attempt to explain Noise to the uninitiated. Noise as a genre of music is funny, cos by nature, Noise isn’t music. It strips out, or alters, conventional signposts such as rhythm, melody, and vocals, and replaces them with whistling feedback, staticky white noise, and a large amount of dissonance. Also, whereas Noise distorts music using guitars, drums, turntables, or specially-built instruments, the sub-genre Power-electronics (as famously pioneered by the UK group whitehouse) is characterised by the use of overprocessed synthesisers, tone generators, and, well, electronic equipment. It’s definitely an acquired taste — busted speakers and a ringing in the ears is normal, don’t be alarmed — but it’s pretty ace cos 1) it’s very unique and unconventional, and 2) it’s a purer form of artistic expression. Wow, that sounded really pretentious. But basically, as I put it to someone recently, Noise is what you get into when you’re looking for something more harsh than Industrial…
Noise-rock, on the other hand, sucks. Too much rock, not enough Noise, in my opinion. I cannot endorse it.

One of Masami’s favourite musicians is Sun Ra, the avant-jazz ex-pat from Saturn, and one of the objectives of Merzbow is to produce at least 500 releases, much in the same fashion of Sun Ra’s (literally) hundreds of self-produced records. To date, he’s released around 300; this includes vinyl, cassettes, and compact disks. There’s Pornoise 1Kg, a 5-cassette boxset from his early period; there’s the infamous Merzbox, which is fifty Cds and a passel of other goodies, all for $500 USD; and there’s other ephemera for the more obsessive segment of collectors, such as the Merzcedes, which is a copy of his Noisembryo release, sealed forever inside the dashboard Cd player of an actual Mercedes 230 that would play on Repeat whenever the car was turned on. Rare item GET! Really, though, my only problem with Akita-san’s Grande Masterplan is that sometimes it’s a case of quantity over quality; which, if your goal is 500 releases, is practically unavoidable…
Example: back in the late Nineties, I’d bought Metalvelodrome, his first Cd boxset. Four disks of well-crafted dissonance compiled in 1993, that to this day, continue to level me each time I hear it. When I bought my copy from local area esoteric bookseller Book beat, I was chuffed. I remember playing it for a couple of weeks straight, especially disks one and two (‘Morbid Dick’ remains a personal fave), and loving every minute. The pieces were dynamic, which is the quality that brings Merzbow’s work above a lot of the Japanese noise artists. Don’t get me wrong; I loves me some Masonna, and some pieces by C.C.C.C., but the majority of Noise performers, Japanese or otherwise, can sound a wee bit samey-same, although it’s not for a lack of trying.

Over the years, like any decent artist pushing their own personal antelope, he’s gone through different periods of different styles. The late Eighties up to the first half of the mid-Nineties was his noise collage period, wherein he would combine overdriven sound loops with field recordings (tape recordings of ambient sounds, such as city streets); then followed his Junk electronics phase, which saw him run self-built instruments, like that metal box with the amplified springs played with a contact mic, through a shit-ton of effects processors; in the late Nineties, he bought a couple of analogue synthesisers and used them as instruments and processors. That was my least-favourite of his periods, as it veered dangerously close to prog-rock, and almost every Cd he made during that era, I sold shortly after purchase. In fact, I was pretty soured on Merzbow until about late 2001, which was the beginning of his laptop period, and with Amlux and Hard lovin’ man, my noisy prodigal son had returned with a noisy vengeance. Which brings us to now.
The original dynamism he had when he first began relying on his laptop is what swung me towards listening to him again: the tones vary in colour and texture, they’re always crisp and distinctive, and they move with speed. But then, you’ve got something like 24 hours – A day of seals, his four-disk boxset from 2002, and I… well, I can’t honestly say why I’m still keeping my copy, as it’s not doing a whole hell of a lot for me. I can’t say there’s a total lack of dynamism in most of the pieces, but it develops at such a tectonic rate that it’s just not holding my interest. Unfortunately, Houjoue is rather like that as well… in its own fashion, it’s almost like Masami’s take on Motorik, as the pieces go for several minutes. Granted, I enjoy a bit of the old soundtrack auf Autobahn now and again, but I believe Merzbow is best when it’s an out-of-control blast of sonic atavism. I mean, anyone can produce a drone, but creating a track that rockets along at 200 mph, slicing wildly as it goes… that takes talent.
Plus — and here’s a personal thing of mine — I’m not too keen on Noise pieces that go over the ten minute mark. Honestly, the trick is to make it so good and interesting that I don’t notice it’s gone over ten minutes (see any of the tracks on his Mort aux vaches – Lokomotive breath release, or the title track from Electric salad). But if there’s not a lot of changes, my finger’s gonna be creeping towards the Next Track button, which is a bad sign. It seems to me that Masami’s pieces are getting longer and less mercurial in sound — I can only hope that this is simply another phase he’s going through.

The end equation is that Merzbow will always remain one of my favourite artists, but even the best artists have lull periods — look at New order’s Republic™, for example. Just don’t listen to it, for god’s sake, as it’s no good for anyone. Besides, I’ve heard excerpts from Merzbear, and read reviews saying his Coma Berenices Cd is supposed to be quite ace. Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years?

*We’re still waiting, by the way

Technorati tags: Noise music, Industrial music, Shoegazer, Motorik, Merzbow, Masami Akita, My bloody valentine, Throbbing gristle, Sun Ra, Masonna, Cosmic Coincidence Control Center, New order

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On Stereolab / Once again, again with the interviews on March 9th, 2006

11 have spoken to “On Merzbow, or, How I fell in love with a sonic ear surgeon”

  1. Miss Hyde writes:

    japaneese noise music? Never heard of it! … Am i too young? But i like music from japan (I blame 4 days of kingdom hearts and chobits) and i love death metal so i guess i would like it? Hyde-chan x

  2. Davecat writes:

    Miss Hyde –
    Hate to break it to you, but you might be too young. 🙂 However, I intend on following this post up with a few downloadable .mp3s of Merzbow’s work, so that everyone may listen and enjoy. Give me a couple of days…

  3. SafeTinspector writes:

    “2) it’s a purer form of artistic expression”
    Haha! At least you called yourself on it, DC.
    Art is so darn subjective that I don’t think its possible to claim that one form is “purer” than another. The only thing you can do is classify the sort of expression being attempted and then judge the form on its own merits.

    Not to say that philistine pop music like Bananarama or Wang Chung is on the same plane as Dave Brubeck or The Smiths, but I would posit that this is more a result of the former being crassly commercial in its primary aim and the latter grouping being crassly commercial only in its secondary aim with art being primary.

  4. Davecat writes:

    SafeT
    In lieu of a decent response, I give you three quotes:

    ‘If you pander to the public, art can never exist.’
    – Morrissey, Mancunian raconteur

    ‘One man’s dissonance is another man’s consonance’
    – Gershon Kingsley, Sixties electronic music pioneer

    ‘If you turn your stereo speakers on their sides, you’ll have a strange taste in music’
    – Booga, Tank girl’s kangaroo boyfriend

  5. SafeTinspector writes:

    The first point sounds like one of those platitudes bandied about by people who somehow think they are immune to societal bias in their art.
    By using the pejorative verb “pander” he makes it a truism, but what if you were an artist who seeks to touch the masses with his honest art? It may still seem pandering to Morrissey.
    I once had a long discussion with a friend of mine (the one with the busted up ankle I talked to you about once) regarding music and approachability.

    There are those who believe that music, like all sciences, naturally has echelons of approachability.
    Like physics. The average man may understand that the speed of light is the fastest fast can get, that all objects attract one another in proportion to their mass and proximity, and that such a thing as atoms and quanta exist.
    But only the highly educated physicists can approach many of the more technical details of their field.

    In music, you might find certain types of composition which can only be “enjoyed,” if that’s what you want to call it, by people who have been schooled in music theory.
    But music isn’t science, it is art. So I don’t think this is a valid parallel to draw.
    The upper echelons of the various hard sciences may not be approachable by the common man, but the fruits of those researches and learned discourses serve to better mankind. You can’t say that about elite levels of artistic endeavor.

    If you produce art with the express purpose of ONLY being enjoyed by an elite few initiates, then your art is suspect and probably a subtle form of hypocrisy.

    If you make art as an honest attempt to express the subject of the piece, and in the process produce a difficult work that only someone of distinct sensitivities can truly appreciate, then I think the art may still be successful.

    But if you intentionally produce an artistic expression engineered in such a way as to get the desired point or to produce the intended effect within the minds of those who would most benefit from the experience–and those people may not necessarily have studied music in college–then I think you are just as successful as the man using “prepared” pianos, orthoganal scales and 9/4 time signatures.

    Anyway, I think noise is intellectually interesting to me, but I don’t feel moved by it in the same way as some other forms of accoustic entertainment.
    I am curious, though, as to what the noise artists are trying to actually express. What is the aim of their art?

  6. SafeTinspector writes:

    The second point is quite true. Western “standard” music all uses the same scale for the most part.

    But there are other cultures that have different intervals between their notes as well as different musical vocabularies, different ideas of suspense and resolution–or NO ideas of suspense and resolution!–than we have.

    I kinda wish I wasn’t so thoroughly westernized in my musical sense. I feel like I’m deaf to whole worlds of great music. 🙁

  7. SafeTinspector writes:

    Oh god! I have type-ed too much! I take it all back! I unvomit it!

  8. Davecat writes:

    WHAT THOU HAST TYPED CAN NEVER BE UNTYPED

    On non-Westernised musics: personally, I’d like to hear more of that crazy Tuvan throat singing. I’m not entirely sure how it even works, but it’s out there. I heard an artist called Yat-kha cover Joy division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’, and it was mesmerising. It also sounded painful, but I suppose they’ve had proper training.

    The aim of Noise artists naturally varies from artist to artist. A lot of the Western Noisists (less to type) have an underlying feel of aggression, power, dominance, BDSM, etc, as a lot of them progressed from Punk and/or Industrial to Noise, and brought those themes and subjects with them. But most in the Japanese scene just perform it as art for its own sake. Masami of Merzbow looks at it like painting — if I recall correctly, he used to be a painter before he got into music. Jojo Hiroshige of Hijokaidan goes for the intensity of volume; Nakahara Masaya of Violent onsengeisha has a propensity for sound collage and prurient silliness; Mayuko Hino of C.C.C.C. went for mental transcendence through relentless volume, and Masonna’s Maso Yamazaki just looks at what he does as his own take on rock ‘n’ roll. Depends on the performer, really, just like most other musics.

    Your thoughts are interesting, though! Maybe I’ll try to crack them open and expand on them at a later date…

  9. SafeTinspector writes:

    I, as always, await expansion.

  10. leather face j-r writes:

    So what did you think of M B V?

  11. Davecat writes:

    Y’know, I’m an idiot. I’ve had the digital download version of M B V since a few months after it came out, but I haven’t listened to it at all! Part of me wants to wait until I can hear the album in its entirety in an environment where I can do so uninterrupted, and the other part of me is frankly scared that it won’t live up to the twenty-two year wait. I’ve not read a single unkind review of the release, but then, I’ve only read two reviews. So there’s that…

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