A Quietus Review: Altamont Rising by Shift (June 5th, 2014)

 

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.

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A Quietus Review: La Bas by JFK (August 28th, 2013)

Anthony diFranco has spent the past couple of years painstakingly excavating his numerous solo ventures (Ethnic Acid, Ax, JFK) and reissuing them on CD and vinyl. In the process, he has revealed himself to be one of the most striking and significant figures to have emerged, via his Ramleh pal Gary Mundy’s Broken Flag label, from the UK underground. OK, admittedly, he has emerged into slightly less dense shadow than before, but one can only hope that this CD will add to the recent Ax and Ethnic Acid compilations and finally grant diFranco the recognition he deserves. Because, whilst he may have, by virtue of his age, come along after Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Whitehouse had already unleashed the grim and provocative genres that are industrial and power electronics, he can proudly call himself one of those band’s most forward-looking disciples.

That he is still taking all of his various projects forwards with the same verve and talent is testament to his abilities and open-mindedness. Indeed, recent Ethnic Acid live performances have seen him take in both munged-out techno and harsh wall noise, in a significant departure from his brittle, DIY early material, a sign that diFranco will not be content to let these compilations of older material serve as some sort of epitaph.

Of the three projects, JFK seems the most beholden to its immediate forbears, and LA BAS comprises ten punchy, aggressive tracks that distill the murky malevolence of TG and SPK with Whitehouse’s more rambunctious, fast-paced assaults with a hint of Cabaret Voltaire mutant swing thrown in for good measure. And yet, as young as diFranco was at the time (the album covers ages 15 to 20, fer chrissakes! When I was 15, I was just beginning to learn that ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65, and at 20 was pretending to hate Pink Floyd to annoy my mates), it is never overtly derivative of his better-known forbears, so most comparisons only serve to give an idea of his overall sound, but can’t hope to get to the heart of what makes JFK so infectiously enjoyable, even in its most sinister moments.

From the moment the album (and it feels more like a cohesive long player than a compilation) jumps out of the speakers with grinding instrumental ‘Big Fat Sin’, it never relents, careering forwards with a verve and aggression that is positively punk, and indeed actually reconnects power electronics to its roots in that genre. ‘Omen’ introduces diFranco’s vocals, which rarely crop up on other projects, which is a shame as he has the kind of snotty snarl that the likes of Stephen Mallinder and Mars’ Sumner Crane wielded so effectively. The vocals are mixed low, so deciphering the lyrics is tricky, but diFranco’s delivery conveys an enormous amount regardless, pitched somewhere between menace and youthful romanticism, the voice of someone turned cynical at a young age.

One of the album’s standout moments, ‘Aktion In A 10/6’ crystallises the aura of JFK into seven hard-hitting minutes of frothing post-punk. Over metronomic, stripped-down drum machine beats, diFranco unleashes torrents of blurry feedback and howls dejectedly like an alternately threatening and distraught rejected lover. The abstract lyrics convey the same sort of sexual violence that emanates from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, but with an added sense of disenchanted romanticism.

The pace of the track, compared to more frenetic tracks like ‘Omen’ or the almost catchy ‘Sexodus’ (which is bolstered by mad guitar riffage and noise from Skullflower’s Matt Bower), is slovenly and repetitive, the kind of industrial grind that makes the genre so challenging and refreshing at once. The album’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is the 12 minute noise and found sample collage ‘Will To Love’, a work so belligerently obtuse and abstract that it can’t fail to evoke Throbbing Gristle at their most deconstructed.

LA BAS is the sound of a man still finding his feet, yet already so confident in his vision that it deserves to be recognised as an industrial masterwork like those of some of the aforementioned bands. Balancing infectious punk-rock structures with fierce noise, abstraction, drone and atonal textures, Anthony diFranco comes up with something truly hybrid that has endured the test of time far better than quite a number of his better-known contemporaries such as 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA.