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
Random similar posts, for more timewasting:
Stuff from Canada, music from Omaha on October 11th, 2004