“Drop it Like it’s Hot“ is the first hit song I think of when I think noise in mainstream music. We hear the sound of a spraypaint can discharging almost all the way through it. Lots of songs have sounds that aren’t made by instruments, like the dialtone in “Buy My Drink“, and gunshots in ’80s-’90s rap. But Snoop’s is really just a noise. It’s also and catchy and fun.
“Drop it Like it’s Hot”
Meanwhile, the genre of music called “noise” can seem like a bunch of humorless misanthropes who only find fun in raping instruments.
But this is not the case. Since the invention of noise by Merzbow, and the development of character in the music by Harry Pussy, noise music has taken great strides in the fun/catchy department. It might never sound like Chewing Gum or get you laid, but it could get your room clean and will definitely alter your consciousness thanks to mirror neurons. Here are some styles of noise music you might learn to love by letting down your defenses and concentrating. Breathe deep and let it in.
1. Blown Speaker Jazz
Best practiced by Mouthus, Sightings, Air Conditioning, and Mindflayer, this style of noise music is defined mostly by its production. It makes overloaded magnetic tape burn a production style, and it’s full of bitter, sour harmonies and melodies that’ll quench any thirst if you can stomach the repetition or slow churn.
These musicians brew up their sound using all manner of heavy distortions on guitars, drums, or some off-beat synth that’s someone’s garbage. I call it ‘jazz’ because the songs are typically loosely structured, or first take improvisations, or third take improvisations. The hard, heavy tracks sound like the band punching its way out of a paper bag. The slower, weirdly pretty ones can inspire that passing out on a downtown park bench midweek bender feeling. As with most noise music, lyrics are rarely present or understandable. I think of it as a kind of musical impressionist painting.
Circuit-jerk is mostly made in one of two ways. Musicians get new sounds opening up any small electronic sound making device and altering it’s electronics, a process called ‘circuit-bending’; or by plugging the inputs of an audio mixer into its outputs and turning up the volume, making an internal loop of sound feedback that doesn’t involve speakers or microphones. They then adjust levels and equalization and the signal reacts, turning a mixer into an instrument. Both approaches mean the musician is really ‘playing’ the circuit design; the resistors, transistors, diodes and triodes are the frets, strings, valves, and keys of their ‘instrument’.
In this style of noise, specific instruments have cachet and unique qualities. And when you watch someone like this guy do it, you can make a connection between the hand movements and the sound you hear. Both are rare for noise. Circuit-jerk produces some music that sounds like a fax machine, and also holds some of the most promise for the longevity of noise as a type of music that will entertain people. It gives us our first 21st-century instrument, the no-input mixer, the way the 20th century gave us sax, electric guitar, the drum kit, and turntables to name a few.
3. New age lightning-orb songwriting
This is a tough category to corral. I need a category for a band like Metalux, who compose beautiful ‘songs’ that sound like half the band is playing backwards and the rhythm section is the alien from the Predator movies. Samplers, tape loops, guitars, turntables, some noise bands use any and all weird-sounding things to make their weird songs.
Wolf Eyes are the easiest to point to, but they’re really a band that straddles this category and the last. This is noise music that is driven by electronic beats. The first tape by Enema Syringe is the earliest I’ve heard, this category encompasses contemporary artists like Mammal, post-2002 Black Dice, and Synb.
5. Freak Blood
Of course, categorizing music is for scoundrels so this last category is a massive cop-out that I see as necessary and validating. Rusted Shut make lyric-driven minimal preach grind. Their somewhat uneven album Rehab has some of the best lyrics of any band of the last ten years. James Ferraro is a solo hobo music man working in all genres. His best is the western cop show soundtrack Last American Hero, the supremely weird synth trip Chameleon Ballet, and Bebe Tunes, his album of hip hop instrumentals. Andrew WK came from the noise scene, and then graduated to full-on Freak Blood status by making music that sounds like a beer commercial.
Men’s Recovery Project are a bunch of freaks from Rhode Island who made a record about life in the Middle East which is incredibly good. It captures the alienation many of us feel at contemplating the reality of that world, and simultaneously invites us to really imagine ourselves there and what life is like as an Egyptian assassin, Mossad agent, widowed Saudi, olive salesman. These bands are not noise purists, but they embrace the wide open-ended view of music categorization that allows for maximum freakiness.
6. Union Drone
Hippies are still around, and no they’re not the dudes in camo shorts in L.A. who hang out with Robert Van Winkle. They’re mostly tenured New England folk with a penchant for things that are slow and long like the process of fermentation. It’s not all drone, of course, but the formulation of soloing over a fundamental is strong in this genre. The best of it is fringe stuff that combines cracked harmonies, heavy distortion, and an appalachian appreciation for the irreverently numinous.