My grandmother, who turns 90 this year, is a progressive person in many ways. She Skypes happily on her iPad and is helping the Chinese family that lives next door learn English. Nevertheless, she has never got to grips with popular (let alone alternative) music. To her, everything outside of the standard classical canon “just sounds like noise,” even something as innocuous as Coldplay. I’ve long wondered what she’d make of the items in my record collection that do actually sound like noise. I mean, it’s not even like noise music is a particularly recent invention, as you can trace its origins at least as far back as Luigi Russolo’s 1913 Futurist manifesto L’arte dei Rumori (The Art Of Noises). Still, I’ve never dared risk playing her any, and you can forget about exposing her to the dubious titles of some of the compositions listed below. But for those who are so inclined, here are 10 of the best noise vinyl releases.
In 1975, Lou Reed followed-up his shamelessly commercial Sally Can’t Dance LP with an album consisting of four 16-minute tracks of shimmering feedback, the final side of which ends on a locked groove, potentially repeating its final moments on an infinite loop. Was Reed pranking his own audience or trying to escape his record contract? Was it supposed to have been released on RCA’s Red Seal classical imprint instead? The album’s liner notes didn’t clear anything up (Reed later confirmed they were “bullshit”) and nor did Reed’s self-contradictory interviews, where he variously confessed that the record was a joke, a “fuck you” to fair-weather fans or a grand artistic gesture. What’s important is that the record has influenced everyone from the Dead C to TV On The Radio and still sounds damn fine today. That feedback, both severely repetitive and constantly shifting, can be pretty psychedelic, if you’ll let it.
While you shouldn’t expect to see them on the cover of Rolling Stone anytime soon, Wolf Eyes are one of the most famous noise acts around, although these days they prefer to describe their sound as “trip metal.” They’ve been championed by the likes of Sonic Youth, were signed to Sub Pop in the mid-2000s and their latest album came out on Jack White’s Third Man Records. 2004’s Burned Mind is arguably the apex of Wolf Eyes: Phase 1, before Aaron Dilloway was replaced by Mike Connelly (who, in turn, would quit in 2013). Featuring the classics “Dead In A Boat”, “Stabbed In The Face”, “Black Vomit” and “Urine Burn,” it’s a predictably loud and ugly racket, with the odd hint of the more spacious, textured and softly tension-building qualities that would gain greater prominence on their subsequent Sub Pop album Human Animal, and beyond.
At one show I attended, Hair Police were playing The Best Of George Michael over the PA in between the bands, a double-CD set that they then tried to sell me instead of their own products at the merchandise stand. I politely declined, choosing instead this raucous beast. On it, the trio of Mike Connelly, Robert Beatty and Trevor Tremaine open proceedings with their most straightforwardly bludgeoning track (“Strict”), thereafter moving into relatively subtler, though still very nasty-sounding, material that fuses elements of noise rock, free jazz, industrial metal, harsh electronics and constipated vocal groaning to devastating effect. It’s not like “Careless Whisper.”
Originally released as a limited 12-CD boxed set in 2010, Soleil Moon kindly issued an 18-LP vinyl pressing two years later. As many of its reviewers pointed out, Merzbient’s title is slightly misleading. This is not ambient music. It does not sound like Stars Of The Lid catching forty winks on Brian Eno’s sofa bed. Even so, this collection of improvised recordings, made between 1987 and 1990, is less of a fiercely unrelenting onslaught than much of Masami Akita’s output. What it lacks in sheer ear-stabbing power, it makes up for in its playful melding of digital scree with “real” acoustic instruments (i.e. bits of metal and junk, wires, a violin bow, etc.) and, of course, in its extravagant quantity.
Some hardcore Prurient fans might prefer Dominick Fernow’s earlier output, which is more consistently aggressive, but most would agree that as a showcase for the sheer breadth of his talents, Frozen Niagara Falls is his masterpiece. The sprawling triple-LP includes classic blasts of angry white noise, the calmer industrial-techno shapes of prior Prurient release Through The Window (and Fernow’s other project Vatican Shadow), and pretty much everything in between. It’s true that several of Frozen Niagara Falls’ compositions transcend the “noise” tag, and there’s even some ambient guitar plucking towards the end, but no self-respecting noise fan’s collection should be without it.
If you’re going to make deeply unpleasant music, you might as well couple it with equally disgusting lyrics. Formed in 1980, England’s Whitehouse specialized in adorning their white-noise static squeals with the kind of shocking, taboo-wallowing lyrics that would delight the Marquis de Sade. Bird Seed features a fair amount of Whitehouse’s usual sonic severity and controversial ranting but there is also something else going on. William Bennett and Philip Best were becoming older, wearier and vaguely more mature. Their rage was starting to sound more impotent and, therefore, more interesting and strangely poignant. It’s especially true of the slow and muttered “Philosophy” as well as “Cut Hands Has The Solution”, on which the Bennett’s signature tirades are accompanied by an unlikely sonic sparseness. If those sound too lily-livered for you, there’s also the disturbing spoken-word collage of the title track and the beautifully vicious “Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel.”
Margaret “Pharmakon” Chardiet’s second album was inspired by the traumatic near-fatal experience of having one of her organs collapse. Appalled by the fragility of the human body, Chardiet pants, coughs, shrieks, roars and moans her way through six tracks of ominous pulsing, metallic clattering and creepy synth lines, finally climaxing in a fit of manic laughter. Throughout, the pace is craftily restrained as Chardiet cranks the tension up further and further until the dread becomes almost unbearable. This is a noise record that is all about the relationship between control and helplessness and it’s as if Chardiet is directing the music in a way she couldn’t manage to steer the workings of her own internal biology. It feels like an exorcism too, but of something far more real and scary than the fiction of demonic possession.
John Weise’s recent work has drawn comparisons to classical composition but 2005’s Soft Punk, his first proper full-length, was more like tumbling off the rollercoaster rails with a hyperactive Tin Man. Its schizophrenic collages veer from quiet plateaus to berserk climaxes, usually within the space of a few seconds. One of the things that makes Soft Punk stand out from the noisy crowd, however, is that every one of its short-lived crashes, rattles, ricochets and glitches simply sounds so good. They are crisp and pristine, not dank and foggy like much homemade noise, and there is something comfortingly precise about Soft Punk’s apparent chaos. You’re in safe, if mischievous, hands.
Kevin Drumm’s 2002 album may have been inspired by Merzbow (its cover appears to be a homage to the latter’s Noizhead live album) but the music on Sheer Hellish Miasma differs noticeably from the abrasive aural tornados of Drumm’s noise idol. While the short slash of “Turning Point” is admittedly pretty scratchy, Drumm’s longer tracks deal in soother, if still claustrophobic, glitchy drones. If listening to Merzbow is like having the sharp grains of a sandstorm smashing relentlessly across your face, this album is more like trudging through a freezing snowstorm. Its concluding ambient piece, “Cloudy”, rescues you from the oppressive blizzard and wrenches you back into the warmth.
If Matt Bower was trying to give black metal bands a run for their money with that album name, a couple of its song titles seem more indebted Whitehouse. “Tantrik Ass Rape”, anyone? “Hanged Man’s Seed”? To be fair, black metal and power electronics have had an important influence on the ferocious sound of Bower’s band, along with industrial metal, drone and other malevolent genres. Looking past its bad-taste designations, F---ed On A Pile Of Corpses (2011) continues the work of its predecessor, 2010’s double-CD set Strange Keys To Untune Gods’ Firmament, albeit in a more concise fashion. Basically, it sounds like a glass palace being smashed to smithereens as an oblivious doom guitarist practices riffs in the basement.
JR Moores is a freelance writer based in the north of England. His work has appeared in Noisey, Record Collector, Drowned In Sound, Bandcamp Daily, The Guardian and many others, and he is currently resident psych-rock columnist for The Quietus.