Anthony diFranco’s place in noise history is assured through his involvement with two of Britain’s most-celebrated noise/rock bands, Skullflower and Ramleh, and his ties, via Ramleh bandmate Gary Mundy, to seminal eighties underground record label Broken Flag. However, this considerable legacy as a bass player, electronics wrangler and occasional guitarist (also recently deployed in Philip Best’s Consumer Electronics project) tends to overshadow his prodigious solo output under a variety of monikers, notably Ethnic Acid and JFK, both of which merit much more ample scrutiny.
You can add Ax to that list as well. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of this particular solo foray until receiving this nicely-packaged compilation taking in diFranco’s previous limited-edition releases under this moniker. Consider that oversight comprehensively put to bed! Ax may just be diFranco’s most melodic and unpredictable project to date, and certainly sets him out as a forward-thinking and radical noise creator. Metal Forest feels in many ways like a noise album in excelsis, with so many of its elements key components of just about every noise album out there, from the individual sounds deployed to the overall mood. Yet, when you consider that the tracks that make up Metal Forest were all made in the mid-to-late nineties, it soon becomes apparent that diFranco was in many ways well ahead of the curve. ‘Kortex’, the album’s opener, for example, is centred on an hypnotically repetitive bass thud that is gradually subsumed into increasingly hazy layers of analogue synth drone and crackling tape hiss, in a style more recently explored by the likes of Helm and Mike Shiflet. Like those guys, diFranco hones in on an atmosphere of intangible dread, but rather than upping the horror levels in a manner akin to, say, the Midwestern noisesters that gravitate around Wolf Eyes, Ax’s music remains refreshingly abstract and, at times, close to the minimal spirit of Eliane Radigue or CC Hennix, minus the spiritual implications of their compositions. The two ‘Nova Feedback’ tracks follow a similar vein, with the subdued guitar hum of the first version countered by more strident feedback play on the second. But rather than go for the cheap pay off of a sudden burst of angry, belligerent squalling, diFranco lingers on each tone, dragging out his sounds until they form a bleak, somewhat abstract, tapestry. It’s easy from there to see the former Ramleh and Skullflower member’s links to the early days of industrial noise, with some moments reminiscent of, and even equalling, the spirit of Throbbing Gristle’s Second Annual Report.
If there is a “spiritual” side to Metal Forest, and the word doesn’t really do proceedings justice, it’s in the way these juxtaposed noises and atmospheres are allowed by diFranco to drift in an almost organic fashion, and we’re never at risk, as can be the case with many noise musicians in this age of perpetual laptops, of mistaking any of the instruments featured for anything else, or of finding the music a bit stale or overly-processed. In fact, the guitar and bass deployed on ‘Heavy Fluid’, a ten-minute post-psychedelic dirge of the most righteous kind, for example, are so upfront in the mix that Ax actually evokes the more monomaniacal doom riffage of those famed hooded icons SUNN O))), all cavernous sub-bass and slow-paced axe-mangling. It’s the kind of intense, slovenly drone that current-day bearded metalheads would lap up, and this extra dimension ties in with the album title’s reference to both nature and machinery. With the title track, this aggressive form of abstract, yet physical, post-everything is driven to its apex: recorded solely using bass guitar, its multi-faceted layers, from dissonant squeals to low rumbles, build up until you’re left marvelling at what amounts to a towering sonic structure, somewhere between rampant noise and beatific psych-drone. It would be easy to imagine Skullflower’s Matt Bower being mightily chuffed with these tracks had he made them, a fact more pertinent when you consider that Bower’s own solo guitar armageddon album, Tribulation, didn’t come out until 2006, over ten years after most of Metal Forest.
But if any noise fans out there are worried that this all sounds a bit too close to the hippy roar of America’s nature-fixated doom/metal troop (Ehnahre, Wolves In The Throne, Earth, SUNN O)))), fear not, for diFranco never leaves his angry power electronics background far behind. The two ‘Ax li’ pieces are obtuse and gnarly combinations of mutated guitars and gristly electronics, while the fantastic ‘Theme One’ can serve as a maxed-out blueprint of the current Harsh Noise Walls sub-genre. In all cases, diFranco’s soundscapes are like all-consuming avalanches, albeit ones that occasionally advance at snail’s pace until the listener is completely surrounded and sucked in by sound. Prophetic indeed.
I once compared Anthony diFranco’s playing on Skullflower’s IIIrd Gatekeeper to that of Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and, beyond his dextrous talent on the four-string, the comparison holds some weight, given diFranco’s unobtrusive stage presence when in a (rock) band format: back to the audience, eyes fixed on his bass and amps, he consciously leaves the limelight to others (Gary Mundy in Ramleh, Bower in Skullflower, Best and Sarah Froelich in Consumer Electronics). However, the great thing about noise is that it can allow even the most retiring of us space to branch out in a solo context, safe in the manic cocoon of eruptive sound. Over the last thirty-odd years, Anthony diFranco has become an expert and a trailblazer in this field, and Metal Forest is another entry in what is increasingly becoming an essential noise discography.