2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

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A Quietus Review: Black Mamba by Cut Hands (November 19th, 2012)

Black Mamba seems to almost be defying those people who find William Bennett’s Cut Hands project unpalatable to say he’s only interested in provocation and discomfort through sound. If anything, Bennett sounds almost sensitive across these twelve tracks. If you’re a noise fan, this may not be a good thing, but this is Cut Hands, and there’s always more to Bennett’s music than first impressions. It just depends on how those first impressions percolate through the experience of listening to Black Mamba.

The title of Cut Hands’ last album, Afro Noise Vol.1 highlighted Bennett’s background as much as it did the new directions he was forging. The abrasive percussion was certainly inspired by African and Haitian rhythms, but they were saturated to the extreme, transformed into a brutal form of techno that had its roots in Whitehouse’s power electronics assault. Not to mention the visuals he deploys at concerts: unsettling footage of colonial times and rituals, all designed to play on his audience’s preconceptions and (dare I say it?) prejudices by remaining resolutely ambiguous. Smart but unflinching, Cut Hands seemed to prolong, rather than divert from, Whitehouse’s equally blunt explorations of themes of rape and murder, albeit more subtly.

Black Mamba, on the other hand, takes its name from a poisonous snake, and, like a snake, this second album is coiled, ready to strike, full of tension, but without the release of violence that characterised Afro Noise. In fact, certain tracks are positively mellow, and, from the brief opener ‘Witness The Spread of the Dream’, with its Vangelis-esque synth and robotic spoken-word lyrics, there is an element of sci-fi sensitivity about this album, the same sort that dominated the best eighties synth-based music, from Cabaret Voltaire to the early Human League albums. The more acute presence of synths opens up Cut Hands’ music, creating a futuristic canvas that widens the scope of Bennett’s beats, pulses and thunders. In fact, come the dreamy, hazy ‘El Palo Mayombe’ and ’54 Needles’, the stretched ambience starts to feel a lot closer to the atmospheres of actual African music than any of the rough and tumble of his abrasive percussive salvos, suggesting wide-open vistas and beautifully wild landscapes. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Brown-Brown’, his percussion is more minimal and stripped down than expected, the connection to mysterious pre-European rites and rituals more openly courted. It’s an intriguing direction for Bennett to take, but I’m not sure it’s one many of his hardcore fans will appreciate.

Rest assured, noise fans, however, because this coiled reptile of a record does still strike, albeit less frequently than Afro Noise Vol. 1. The title track is possibly Bennett’s finest achievement to date under the Cut Hands guise, a throbbing, angry, pulsating mass of brittle rhythm that shifts in velocity with belligerent force, with similar metallic stridency to ‘Stabbers Conspiracy’ off his last record, only with greater, and more exciting, variation in the tempos. ‘No Spare No Soul’, meanwhile, features lurching, scratch-like synth that wouldn’t feel out of place on a drum & bass or jungle record. Bennett has slowed down the pace across Black Mamba, but when he goes for the attack, he’s definitely aiming for the jugular.

Black Mamba in many ways suffers in comparison to its exalted predecessor. It’s less abrasive, more considered, and that’s bound to rankle with more than a few power electronics fans, this writer included. Maybe it’s Bennett shying away from the – in my opinion overstated – “controversy” of his debut, although I doubt it. More likely it’s just a case of expanding the horizons of what Cut Hands means and represents, and for that I salute him. It would be great to see these tracks fleshed out in a live setting (one that’s not a club, it must be said). Until then, whilst there’s loads to enjoy on Black Mamba (seriously, the title track is a fucking killer), I currently find myself returning to Afro Noise with more enthusiasm.

From the Vault: 2011 in Review

My appraisal of the 30 best albums of 2011, from http://www.rateyourmusic.com.

1
Through Glass Panes

Ellen Fullman

Through Glass Panes (2011)
2
Afro Noise I

Cut Hands

Afro Noise I (2011)
3
Eager to Tear Apart the Stars

Leyland Kirby

Eager to Tear Apart the Stars (2011)
4
Man With Potential

Pete Swanson

Man With Potential (2011)
5
Tryptych

Demdike Stare

Tryptych (2011) [Compilation]
6
Confessions of a Sex Maniac

Werewolf Jerusalem

Confessions of a Sex Maniac (2011) [Compilation]
7
Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth

Surface of the Earth (2011)
8
Hold Everything Dear

Cindytalk

Hold Everything Dear (2011)
9
Severant

Kuedo

Severant (2011)
10
Fucked on a Pile of Corpses

Skullflower

Fucked on a Pile of Corpses (2011)
11
Amplifying Host

Richard Youngs

Amplifying Host (2011)
12
Application à aphistemi

Vomir

Application à aphistemi (2011)
13
Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis

Eleh

Floating Frequencies / Intuitive Synthesis (2011) [Compilation]
14
Consecration of the Whipstain

Indignant Senility

Consecration of the Whipstain (2011)
15
univrs

Alva Noto

univrs (2011)
16
How the Thing Sings

Bill Orcutt

How the Thing Sings (2011)
17
Trowo Phurnag Ceremony

Phurpa

Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (2011)
18
Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton

Pinch & Shackleton (2011)
19
Red Horse

Red Horse

Red Horse (2011)
20
Ersatz GB

The Fall

Ersatz GB (2011)
21
Ghost People

Martyn

Ghost People (2011)
22
Benacah Drann Deachd

Dalglish

Benacah Drann Deachd (2011)
23
Re: ECM

Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer

Re: ECM (2011)
24
Life Is an Illusion

Annapurna Illusion

Life Is an Illusion (2011)
25
Ravedeath, 1972

Tim Hecker

Ravedeath, 1972 (2011)
26
Drawn and Quartered

Deadbeat

Drawn and Quartered (2011)
27
Our Blood

Richard Buckner

Our Blood (2011)
28
Elemental Disgrace

Hive Mind

Elemental Disgrace (2011)
29
Looping State of Mind

The Field

Looping State of Mind (2011)
30
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

The Caretaker

An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)

Liminal Live Review: Nightmare beats: Cut Hands, Regis, Raime and Surgeon at The Basing House (October 28th, 2011)

The deliberately underground approach of Blackest Ever Black to releasing and promoting the darker fringes of alternative culture have brought the likes of Raime, Tropic of Cancer and Regis to the fore, whilst their website and mixtapes plunder the funereal and the sinister with the kind of single-mindedness that hasn’t really been seen since the heyday of 80s Goth. At the Basing House, Blackest Ever Black assembled a lineup which showcased the best of bleak electronic music.

On this occasion, Blackest Ever Black had assembled some of the most exciting and forward-thinking electronic acts currently haunting the shadows of the UK scene. Raime are Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead and their unique approach to dubstep has been garnering huge praise in The Wire and on the Resident Advisor website. At the Basing House, they had the rather unenviable task of following the rather excellent and bold Blackest Ever Black DJs, but immediately seduced thanks to some wall-shaking dub beats allied to creepy sound effects apparently lifted from a wealth of horror movie soundtracks and then processed into dense clusters of synthetic melodic lines. The dubstep label is someone misleading, given their minimal take on bass music, with their distillation of uneasy ambience and grating harmonics owing as much to the organic industrial music of Coil as it does to, say, Burial. Call it dubstep for ruined cathedrals, haunted cemeteries and abandoned factories.

However, they were somewhat let down by the acoustics and layout of the Basing House. It would appear that the venue doubles as a club, so many punters seemed rather uninterested in what was happening onstage, preferring to talk loudly whilst Raime were playing. Such is the design of the Basing House, with its stage located in front of a narrow dancefloor just off the main bar area, that even the deepest of Raime’s bass lines couldn’t drown out the hubbub. Meanwhile, between sets you had to queue to be able to get into the tiny smoking area, with a bouncer (!) on hand to observe a one-out, one-in policy. All rather disorganised.

Karl O’Connor, aka Regis, was on next, and was equally dark, although in a more abrasive, almost punk style. Nicely contrarian, O’Connor blazed up a cigarette on stage, and his chattering beats, overloaded synth patterns and angry bass felt like a chaotic collision of modern techno and the noisy, primitive electronica of Suicide or the UK’s Power Electronics scene. Which was fitting, given that William Bennett was on next. Industrial techno at its finest and most melodic, Regis’ music would almost fit in nicely at Fabric, although it would be amusing to see what the Farringdon venue’s regular punters would make of O’Connor’s brutalist approach.

If Raime and Regis were good, what came next took things to a whole other level. Is there anything more left to be said about William Bennett’s Cut Hands project? It’s possibly, probably, better than Whitehouse. Cut Hands vol.1 is the most radical album of the year. The percussion. The harsh electronics. The way Bennett juxtaposes them. The use of African imagery in thought-provoking -even provocative- ways. It was all on show at The Basing House.

Bennett completely drowned out the noise from the bar from the very first track, as his furious polyrhythms and angry electronic patterns clattered around the room, harsh and beautiful at once. The dancefloor became a heaving mass of shuddering dances and bouncing heads, whilst Bennett himself jittered and convulsed, mouth agape, seeming as enraptured by his sounds as the audience. The tracks from Cut Hands vol.1 were extended and enhanced, the beats becoming an avalanche of harsh percussive noise whilst the melodies contorted and sailed across the mix.

I have often wondered, when it comes to electronic music played live, how artists choose -or not- to enhance the “live” aspect of the performance. Most, apparently, don’t, preferring to sit or stand and work on their sounds in the same way they would in the studio. Now, I’ve seen enough noise, drone, experimental and electro acts to not be bothered by this, and certainly am not expecting Springsteen-esque pyrotechnics when attending an event like the Blackest Ever Black showcase. Indeed, you often have more time to concentrate on the music in such circumstances, which was a definite plus in the case of noiseniks Werewolf Jerusalem and Voltigeurs, for example. But, nonetheless, it must be a challenge for a lot of electronic acts, most of whom, such as Raime and Regis on this occasion, compensate with much head-bobbing as they fiddle with mixing desks and sequencers. Not William Bennett, although he also had his trusty headphones and mixers close to hand. His intermittent, jerky, aggressive dancing was very much part of the spectacle and appeal, adding to the dichotomous tribal and white boy punk aspects of his music. Allied to the unsettling film footage of African rituals and colonial exploitation that was projected on the walls, this mesmeric non-dancing elevated Cut Hands as a live entity above both the usual electronic show and the high camp of Whitehouse and other Power Electronics acts. A triumph, no less, and I was quick to tell him so.

Blackest Ever Black weren’t finished there, and next up was special secret guest Surgeon, quite a “star” on the alternative techno/electro scene. After the brittle sounds of Regis and Cut Hands, Surgeon’s driving yet smooth pulsations brought the night to a pleasingly groovy close, and had the audience dancing with relish. I detected hints of popular electro acts like Martyn, Vex’d and even the Chemical Brothers in Anthony Child’s hypnotic beats and elegant melodies, which is not to suggest he was lightweight in comparison to his forbears. Indeed, he and Regis united at the end to resurrect their British Murder Boys duo, which as its name suggests, was a darkly humourous play on both techno and Power Electronics. Even in this context, Surgeon’s slinky aesthetic dominated over Regis’ abrasion, for an utterly thrilling climax to a wonderful showcase of all that is exciting and forward-thinking in modern electronic music.

I return to my high praise for Blackest Ever Black. Despite the venue’s limitations, they put on a high-quality, and varied, show, and lasting as it did from 10pm to 4am, you got your money’s worth. Vomited back into East London’s darkened streets, surrounded by railway bridges, darkened bars and quiet office blocks, I drank in the cold air, and felt the thunder of Cut Hands’ vicious beats rumble away in my head, aware that I had witnessed the kind of show that no major label would ever had the guts or ambition to put on. For which, maybe, we should be grateful, because the music at the Basing House was as coldly arresting as that East London night air, and something to be savoured in the dark.

Photos by Jimmy Mould

You can also read this article here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/10/nightmare-beats-cut-hands-regis-raime-and-surgeon-at-the-basing-house/