In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, American philosopher and psychologist William James–brother to novelist Henry James–noted that one of the key qualities of mystical experiences is ineffability, the inability or unwillingness to express certain ideas or experiences in words. This ineffability could be because the ideas and experiences are taboo, incomprehensible, or indeed that they are profound enough, unusual enough, that they can’t be captured in words.
Noise music deals in the ineffable, and to many fans and musicians alike, it is a form of mysticism. Largely instrumental, improvised, and aleatoric, noise is an experience beyond words, beyond rhythm, beyond melody. An atheist coerced into accompanying a friend to a dingy basement through a locking trap door to attend a noise show will find the experience sweaty, overwhelming, cathartic, and likely spiritual.
While “noise as music” has roots in the deconstructionism of the Dadaists and the Surrealists, capital-N Noise music is usually traced to the experimental music of the late seventies and early eighties with bands like Psychic TV, Einstürzende Neubauten, Coil, Glenn Branca, Whitehouse, Cabaret Voltaire, Nurse with Wound, and the sample-driven Negativland. The genre also became associated with–and possibly more defined by–“Japanoise” powerhouses like Merzbow, Hanatarash, The Gerogerigegege, Masonna, and Hijokaidan, while it later grew in popularity in Western musical undergrounds through the innovation of artists such as Atrax Morgue, Deathpile, Black Leather Jesus, and the immortal Eric Wood/Bastard Noise.
While it’s never gone anywhere, noise music has recently been finding its way out of illicit gigs in condemned buildings, out of the sketchy basements, and though the sound is as subterranean as ever, it is finding a world of listeners who, for some reason, are more prepared to experience the mystical gifts it has to offer. While harsh noise, power electronics, and other approaches to noise are being employed by hip hop artists like Death Grips and Moor Mother, and while they continue to be a staple in grindcore bands like Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Full of Hell, pure noise has lately been the recipient of more critical and popular attention than ever. With each new release, artists like Prurient, Pharmakon, Justice Yeldham, Limbs Bin, The Body, and Lingua Ignota are introducing new audiences to the infinitely faceted gem that is noise music.
In early November, two of the most important voices in modern noise released a split that manages to accomplish the challenging task of being inventive, genuine, and groundbreaking enough for die-hard noise fans, while also being an excellent introduction for newcomers to all that a noise album should be. Over fourteen tracks, Many Blessings (Ethan Lee McCarthy of Primitive Man, Vermin Womb, and more) and White Phosphorous (Noah Maria of Parasiticide and more) create an experience for the listener that goes beyond words. At different times, it is euphoric, unsettling, and alarming, and is usually some inexpressible combination of the three, a menacing, divine cocktail that simultaneously empowers and terrifies you. It performs an autopsy on the darkest parts of the human psyche, pulling out the still-beating heart and bearing it for the vulnerable, fearful world to witness.
These two musicians are at the peaks of their crafts, and one gets the impression that, while they have created an album whose combination of samples, loops, ambiance, and atmosphere will challenge the listener to leave unchanged, they are also essentially children at play in the sandbox of noise, or possibly tinkerers experimenting in a dimly-lit workshop at midnight.
Many Blessings and White Phosphorous were kind enough to share their thoughts on their new split and on the world of noise music.
What were your early motivations for exploring noise? Who were some artists that inspired you early on? Who inspires you now?
MB: I have always enjoyed harsh sounds. So, while on this endless quest to find the heaviest music available I stumbled into noise via bands like Khanate, Merzbow, SUNN, Oren Ambarchi, ZEV, etc, etc… I’m still into all of those artists but I’ve started floating in the direction of people who work on soundtracks and incorporate noise/heavy atmosphere into their movements. Stuff like Haxan Cloak and Abigail Mead (Vivian Kubrick) and the like.
WP: When I was in undergrad, a friend of mine and I had a running joke about this weird internet-famous thing that happened in the 90’s called the Max Headroom intrusion. The event itself was a pirate signal hacked into an episode of English Dr. Who in the middle of the night. It’s easily my favorite work of publicly displayed “art,” and I think that was probably the seed for me. It’s on Youtube and only like three minutes long if you haven’t seen it. Because I was in school at the time and had unlimited access to the studios I made a couple of underdeveloped sculptures about subliminal imaging and glitch signals heavily inspired by the Headroom event and a YouTube channel called “totheark” that was a component of the Marble Hornets series.
WP: Years later I saw Clotting and Disrotted in the basement of a DIY venue here in Chicago called Rancho Huevos and it suddenly became obvious how a lot of the stuff I’d been thinking about could come together for a set. I started working on some stuff in this music software I had downloaded a ways back, and the first whitephos “Album” came together pretty quick. What inspires all this is every time I walk into a waiting room and see Tucker-fucking-Carlson’s smug face in the middle of some mealy-mouth monologue about making the lives of me and everyone I love shittier. What inspires me is this clown car government committing war crimes for sport and sending armies of pigs to march through the streets to beat us and gas us. This shit makes me want to rip my fucking skin off. Every day, this rancid pantheon of scum comes up with new and exciting ways to fuck this planet up, get their paycheck, and laugh their asses off at us while we die. And the way shit’s going, it looks like I’ll never run out of new material.
What can noise offer musicians and audience members that other genres can’t?
MB: Freedom to do whatever you want.
Noise has been a relatively underground art form for a long while. It seems to be gaining popularity over the last few years. Why do you think it’s finding a larger audience now?
MB: I think that is because there are people who are trying to push it as a legitimate art form and are essentially out here demanding respect. And as the line between harsh metal and noise gets blurred that also helps. There are, of course, musicians who do not care and view this as anti-art trash, but that in itself is beautiful and should be recognized. I do not think you can say that you hate noise if you enjoy any metal band that uses excessive feedback in their music. I am glad people are getting into it more. I’d love to play to a packed room of people who enjoy & appreciate this stuff instead of being the noise artist on the metal show or playing to a maximum of 30 people in someone’s basement because it is impossible to take it into a “legitimate” club setting. But there is a place for everything. You can’t really set your shit on fire inside of a club.
WP: Bandcamp. And I mean that totally seriously. The underground owes a lot to Bandcamp and Soundcloud. It also owes a lot to the dudes that release tracks for old versions of photoshop and illustrator.
What qualities, to you, make a good noise artist?
MB: Good atmosphere, layering & tone. There is such a wide range of ways to play noise that this is hard to answer. Performance can also play a part in this because when someone is up there cutting their face and smashing glass into a trash can, screaming about whatever issues they have, I think that can make the art come across in a specific way that you cannot deny.
WP: I like people who think hard and work hard. I don’t think that gatekeeping noise in any regard is productive or valuable. The spirit of noise is that it’s just like three-chord punk. It can be easy to make if you want, easy to get out there, and easy to say what the fuck you have to say. So If you wanna put a bunch of contact mics on a bowl full of silverware and then turn that in as your art. Go for it. If you can build a following on that and generate a unique and interesting performance. That’s what this shit is all about. But I like it when noise feels meditated on. I like good packaging and graphic design. I like thoughtful curation of sounds. I like good stage energy and when artists throw down hard. I also like it when artists do something a traditional band is incapable of. Timeghost I think is one of the coolest performers for pushing the bounds of the body to do something weird.
Do you have any thoughts on noise’s connection with a Leftist worldview? There seems to be a link, and I wonder if the current rise in both is a correlation or a causation.
MB: There is plenty of stupid ass fascist noise as well. In the 2000s, there seemed to be a ton of noise with fascist artwork, anti-women incel-esque stuff, etc, etc… It definitely still exists but I don’t pay this any mind. I would say it is a lot like black metal in that aspect. The attraction to nihilism and bad feelings can go either way.
WP: I’m not certain there’s quite that direct a connection. Though I’m glad you know enough lefty’s making noise to begin to draw that line. And I agree in the sense that I know a ton of left folks making cool noise. But I think confidently planting a flag will help a lot of assholes get by making wack shit. Like most extreme forms of music, there’s plenty of smooth brains who hitched their shitty little noise wagons onto fascist ideology and symbolism or violence against women to pave over tepid uninspired performances and aesthetics. Lots of edge for edge’s sake, and it’s always the most boring uninspired shit.
This split is a fantastic collaboration of two of the more exciting voices in noise today. In addition to Pulsatile Tinnitus, who has collaborated with Many Blessings, are there other artists you are interested in working with? Are there noise artists working now that deserve a larger audience?
WP: Thanks for calling it fantastic. That’s extremely kind and I’m glad you liked it. We both kinda busted ass on it and I’m fucking stoked with how it came out. Also yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. Kayla’s stuff is super sick. One of the coolest people I know. So I doubt there’s anything I could say that would give Pulsatile Tinnitus a larger audience lmao. It would be like posting up next to the jukebox, flipping my cool gal sunglasses down and saying “Yeah man, check out this underground project a friend of mine just turned me onto. They’re called Guns N’ Roses,” and then we’d both have a laugh. Kayla is significantly more powerful than me. Here are some folks I’m friends with who are getting their stuff out there and would benefit from a little bump:
– Poverty Line from my hometown in Vermont is an old friend of mine who got into making noise to talk about how shitty rural poverty is, and everything Charles does makes the BTV scene cooler. We did a split a few months back called Hateful Retaliation
– Consumer here in Chicago is a project and a person I did a split with about a year ago. Matt is easily one of the most positive people in my life and is really good at recognizing when I’m in a depression death spiral and not going to get something done on time. We’ve played a handful of shows together and they always go extremely well.
– Suffering Brings Wisdom from Cincinnati is a good friend of mine who makes some delicious horror movie-themed power electronics.
– Dead Titles from Texas are making punishing walls in a way I’m excited to do shows with in the future.
What are your goals for this release?
MB: Just to release a cool tape!
What should people know about your projects?
WP: Though I have almost nothing good to say about Joe Biden, I’m very glad that the scum on the throne will be one who will take some semblance of measures to fix the pandemic and get us back on tour soon. I miss playing shows. Noise is most itself in a live setting.
MB: Everything I do comes from the heart or from the beast that lives inside of it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
WP: Absolutely. If you want to get into making noise. Do it. Even if your shit sucks at first. The cool part about this is that you don’t need three other drunks with emotional problems to show up to your house once a week for a year to write an album nobody cares about. You can just figure out what you want to say and work your way through it. You can put stuff out yourself by buying tapes at the thrift store and dupe them for your friends. There’s an incredibly rugged DIY sensibility to noise, and it’s my favorite part of the genre. Go and do it. Our community will be cooler with you in it.
MB: The earth is a grave. Real recognize real.
Land of the Free is out on Black Ring Rituals Records.