As Paul Hegarty noted in his marvellous book Noise/Music: A History, noise is defined by what it’s not: it’s not melodic, it’s not song-based, it’s not accessible. It’s meant to be hard to listen to. Thing is, though, if you go to a noise gig in some backroom of a pub, fans like me might be being challenged, but we’re fucking loving it, and audiences rapidly transform into moshing hordes of delighted head-bangers, regardless of how abrasive or loud the music is. Meanwhile, textures from noise have percolated their way into more mainstream genres, from dub-pop to dance music. So, in 2014, can noise still make a listener feel uneasy or prone to declaring “this is not music”?
I don’t know the answer, although my Vomir records tend to make my friends roll their eyes or scream at me to turn the stereo off, so maybe it’s down to personal taste rather than something inherent to noise. Whatever the case, Altamont Rising by Swedish noise-head Shift is certainly a troubling listen, and a sharp reminder of the visceral potency of harsh noise. As the title suggests, Willford takes the tragedy at the 1969 Altamont festival – where a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, was killed by Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones’ set – as a starting point to explore dark and sinister themes. Also plundered are two films, Apocalypse Now and Valhalla Rising, and Shift uses these three topics to misanthropically take up position against humankind’s fractious relationship with nature, clearly concluding that homo sapiens is, in general, a pretty crap species. Fair point, but, as so often with noise, any clear position is hard to pin down, drowned in waves of crashing noise, with only snippets of brutal sampled movie dialogue or re-worked Stones’ lyrics indicating where Shift stands, albeit obliquely. Such ambivalence is typical for noise and power electronics, and will do nothing to dispel the long-standing debate about how the genres lead to or allow the expression of far right political views. I don’t know where Shift stands on such matters, and in such circumstances it’s better to leave interpretation behind and focus on the music.
In Shift’s case, it’s pretty simple: Altamont Rising is a gnarly beast of pure harsh noise that somehow feels refreshing in 2014, even if it breaks no new ground. After so much genre cross-pollination in noise, getting assaulted by a full-on blast of saturated electronics and gut-shaking sub-bass feels like a release, a return to basics done well, in the grand tradition of Whitehouse, Merzbow (circa Venereology) and The Cherry Point. The aforementioned sampled dialogue (notably grisly when taken from the violent viking film Valhalla Rising), deployed on ‘The Raptors Talons Tore At Their Flesh’ and ‘Rising’ are buried under waves of garbled harsh tones and ever-shifting drones, whilst Shift’s own vocalising is a hideous, incomprehensible shriek of the kind you’d expect on a black metal album.
On ‘They Don’t Suffer Enough’, the vacillating bursts of noise develop a kind of propulsive forward momentum, the shifts building up like ruptured backbeats overdriven in an apocalyptic harsh techno set performed at the end of the world. The album’s apex is ‘Shelter’, on which, over the sound of the Altamont crowd’s chaotic terror, Shift howls the iconic lyrics of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, “Rape! Murder! It’s just a kiss away,” like a demented sanatorium inmate. If there’s nothing new or particularly edifying about Altamont Rising, it fills the noise brief of being difficult to enjoy and standing at the antithesis of what music was traditionally meant to represent. In the somewhat aimless world that is the noise underground in 2014, it feels almost like a call to arms.