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Separate Mind: The Best Is Noise

In his latest Separate Mind column, Richard Brophy discusses producers who embrace the concept of noise in their work and covers releases from Ekman, Alessandro Cortini, Gavin Russom, Samuel Kerridge and Musumeci.

We hear noise all the time, in the background from the moment we awaken to the last few seconds of consciousness before we drift into sleep at the end of day. From the muffled chatter of a radio to the inexplicable series of creaks, whirrs and hisses a house emits late at night as it settles, the sounds in the background are an intrinsic part of our everyday experiences. In the field of music-making, background noise and atonal sounds have played an integral role for decades. From the smashing of glass on The Velvet Underground’s guitar white-out “European Son” to the cavernous textures of Jamaican dub ‘versioning’; from the waves of feedback that the Jesus & Mary Chain daubed their punk pop in on Psychocandy to the blissed out drones of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, the use of layers of noise and unidentifiable sounds and the practice of sourcing audio elements from beyond the realms of the studio have been hugely enriching.

Arguably, electronic music was birthed by experiments in noise and tone – witness the tortured gurgle of the Roland or the mutation from slick disco into the distorted techno and house stomp. Even when underground electronic music had matured by the end of the ’90s, there were still artists like Pole and Akufen sampling background noise or ‘found sounds’ and using these as focal points in their productions.

Speaking in the context of the interminably dull debate about whether CDs or vinyl possessed greater sound quality, the late, great John Peel had this to say about the relationship between noise and music: “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have surface noise. I said, ‘Listen mate, life has surface noise.”

What do contemporary producers make of the use of noise? Gavin Russom, whose new release is covered later on this column, says: “Yeah, I’m into everyday life and surface noise for sure. I like to let all the wild spirits come through. But also balance that with structure, composition and storytelling. Most of the stuff I’m attracted to engages these things too. I guess I’ve always preferred things that were rough around the edges, noisy, a little messy even, because life feels like that. This stuff came into focus and got a lot more important to me when I ran across books like Jacques Attali’s Noise where he talks about this stuff through the lens of political economy.”

But at what point does noise itself become a cliché? If you had the misfortune to hear the vast majority of minimal house from the middle of the last decade onwards – there were are only a few notable exceptions – it was clear that the blasts of white noise and stuttering effects deployed with shocking regularity had helped to push minimal into self-parody.

Yet for every musical action there is a reaction, and the over-use of certain noise elements led to a period of purist techno and house, Berlin, Chicago and Detroit-inspired. Unfortunately, most of it lacked that magic layer of sound, that unattainable, extra dimension that made records like Magic Feet, Phylyps Trak II and Jazz Is the Teacher impossible to copy.

Once again though, there has been a reaction against this airbrushed plundering of the past and the past few years has seen a wave of artists reintroducing the concept of using background noise, unidentifiable sounds and unfamiliar sample sources to electronic music. In many instances it is self-indulgent rubbish, and rather than promoting a DIY agenda, the real value in it being released on a limited edition cassette is because it’s so bad that as few people as possible should hear it.

In the case of the US label L.I.E.S, the noise and lo-fi descriptors have become interchangeable. Irrespective of whether the label deserves the hype it has been subjected to – my own feeling is that due to the volume of material it releases, it became an easy place to look for lazy journalists in search of a new saviour – its approach does not compare to some of this year’s best noise releases.

Indeed, the modus operandi that often yields the most impressive results is often decidedly high-end. It’s audible on the majestic shapes that Sigha sketched out on his masterful Devotions 1984 -2006 release as Faugust – arguably his best release – and on the spectacular new album by Alessandro Cortini, Sonno, on Hospital Productions. One of the key members of Nine Inch Nails, Cortini has achieved that rarest of feat, and has created a great work of art almost out of thin air. It’s nothing new for touring producers to record in the hotels that they stay in, but it’s another thing entirely to assign starring roles in the album to parts of their bedrooms.

It’s unclear at what point the turning on of taps and the closing of windows morphed into the brooding, majestic beauty that is Sonno. As a non-producer, this writer finds it hard to explain the process that generated the album, so it is more productive to describe the result. Sonno is a home listening work in that it avoids any dance floor moves, although that title somehow does it an injustice. Ideally, it would be best heard on the world’s loudest rig to experience its full power. We’ve still got five months left until the end of 2014, but Sonno is sure to be jockeying for top position on this writer’s album list.

What does Russom make of techno producers making releases that focus on noises and background sounds – is it a justifiable approach or is it just another trend that will die a death in a few years’ time? “I like it. There’s something really powerful in the interaction between machine sounds and these more environmental sounds, especially when played very loud,” he says. “I come from a background in experimental music and noise, but have always loved dance floor oriented music as well, so this approach makes a lot of sense to me.”

Russom goes on to reference Jeff Millls and last year’s album The Jungle Planet, “I read an interview with Mills where he said he recorded the insides of the machines that he was using and those sounds also were used as well as the sounds the machines themselves were making in the conventional way.” This blew Russom’s mind. “Often a really good techno track stands out to me because of the sounds themselves and the background noises, And this is a very cool idea that sets techno apart from more conventional music, makes it more abstract and puts it in touch with deeper energy.”

If Cortini represents the contemplative, reflective end of the noise spectrum, then Samuel Kerridge’s music sits at the opposing end. The young British producer has issued a series of excellent, noisy and darkly atmospheric EPs and an album for Downwards, and now he debuts on James Ruskin’s Blueprint label with Deficit of Wonder. One of the main issues for an artist like Kerridge is that his refusal to restrict himself to the confines of the 4/4 tyranny has meant that his music has probably gone over many potential fans’ heads. There is the argument that only those who are adventurous enough to seek out his music deserve to hear it, but the reality is that even the most underground producer will want as many people as possible to pay attention to their work.

Kerridge has reached a compromise of sorts here and the first track, “Operation Neptune,” is led by a mid-tempo groove. It will hopefully reel in some new listeners who will then marvel at his sound palette, which on “Neptune” includes haunting, wispy echoes, the sound of war planes dropping their payloads in slow motion and water poured over searing, white hot coals. It’s a relatively tranquil prelude for the horrors ahead. “Surrender To the Void” starts with the blood thirsty buzz of a psychopath’s buzzsaw, followed by the consequential blood-curdling screeches and death-paced, sledgehammer beats.

“Paint It Black” leaves it up to the listener to work out what form of torture is being meted out and to whom, with waves of feedback unravelling to distorted, downtempo drums. By the time “Paint It Black Reprise” looms into earshot, Kerridge has dropped any semblance of appealing to potential admirers; the beats disappear and those brave enough to keep listening will be overcome by a tsunami of garbled, distorted noise.

One of the challenges for artists working in this area is whether or not they can strike a balance between experimentation and being danceable. It would seem illogical that a piece of music littered with half-heard sounds and unpredictable digressions and segues would work in the conveyor belt world of electronic music, but Musumeci’s recent release, Untitled on Mannequin, appears to achieve just that.

The first “Untitled” track is little more than an unintelligible dirge, with a gobby rant set to a trashy guitar din, but Musumeci get it together on “Untitled 2” to deliver a self-assured metal disco strut, the spluttering, indignant vocal tethered to choppy guitar and wavey synths. The real highlight though is Traxx’s edit of Musumeci’s “Tag Fuer Tag”. With a bleak synth at its centre, Traxx pushes the hats into distorted levels and locks the vocals into a heads down pulsing groove that at times pushes them screeching into the foreground. On other occasions, it sounds like the sound levels are dropping, the track is going out of tune and the quality of the pressing is degrading. Whatever kind of wizard-behind-the-curtain trickery Traxx is engaging in here, it’s hard to believe that this is the same artist who released the Faith album a few years ago.

“Often a really good techno track stands out to me because of the sounds themselves and the background noises, And this is a very cool idea that sets techno apart from more conventional music.”

An album that provides the noisiest and most extreme iteration of the Chicago house sound is I.B.M.’s Eat My Fuck, the latest release from Jamal Moss under this guise on the +++ offshoot label of Mathematics. However, Eat My Fuck comes with a health warning and even fans of his Hieroglyphic Being releases and his Mathematics label may recoil in horror at what Moss serves up. The album begins with the title track, a jarring, pounding take on Chicago house music, like Ron Hardy getting it on with Atari Teenage Riot’s digital hardcore and is followed by the robotic discordance and tinny drums of “Rectum”.

After this initial salvo, he takes the intensity levels down for the tribal drums of “Karma Sutra” and the hollowed out beat track “Paradoxia”. Pretty soon however Moss bounces back with his love of atonal noise with the screeching distortion, gained kicks and noisy percussion of “Into the Black Box” and “AS-FIX-8”. While not as extreme as some reviews have suggested, there is a streak of belligerence and menace, coupled with a wilful disregard for high-end production, on Eat My Fuck. This combination manifests itself on the mad synth squiggles of the suggestive “Oral Fixation” and the grubby, doubled up drums of “Fingered” and “Vortex of Desire”. In fact, this album’s greatest strength is that it is the exact opposite of the Chicago house knock-offs being churned out conveyor belt-style. For Eat My Fuck, this writer can think of no greater praise.

A more danceable take on Moss’ I.B.M. project is audible on the two latest releases on the Dutch label Panzerkreuz. A sub-label of Bunker Records, Panzerkreuz has seen its owner Guy Tavares provide a platform for records that sound like they were recorded, mastered and pressed in an outdoor toilet. That’s a compliment by the way. Ekman’s Untitled release, also known as 1015, neatly fits this description. Over the course of six tracks, the Dutch producer drags the listener through a relentlessly grim series of scenes, from “A1”, where a grey viscous bassline and layers of tonal bleeps are piled atop one another to the banshee wails of “A2” and the loose, unidentifiable splurges of “A3”.

Despite presenting his productions in this way, all of the A-side tracks are curiously functional. The same can be said about the oppressive pulses and bleak synths of “B1” and “B2”, Ekman’s own version of purist electro, where the 808s drop with sledgehammer might as weird sound squiggles unfold in the background. But by the time Ekman has reached the final track – yes, it’s called “B3” – he decides to no longer placate the dance floor and the sluggish drums are swamped by layers of feedback.

The question is how can Panzerkreuz follow this release? Like Ekman, Panzerkreuz 1029 by Ghetto Gem vs Black Sites navigates a murky, noisy path through techno music. If Gesloten Cirkel’s Submit X is the noisy techno/electro equivalent of the Human League’s Dare, then Panzerkreuz 1029 is its equivalent of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. It’s a record that takes the sewer techno of Bunker to its logical, most tortured extreme, combining the meanest 303 gurgles with bone-crushing distorted kicks and swathes of swampy textures. On “B2” Helena Hauff and f#x’s collaboration unites the shrieking sirens and raging acid of DJ Skull and Robert Armani with drums jammed permanently in the red. As it nears the end, it sounds like the record is skipping, but it’s just another ploy by Black Sites to screw with the listener’s head, as is the degrading in the sound quality as it reaches its denouement.

On the flip, Dutch duo Baz Reznik and Xavier van Wersch release their first ever track. As debuts go, it’s hugely impressive; the kicks have the same breeze block intensity and edge as Black Sites’ tracks, while a combination of snare rolls, acrid acid pulses and, to round it off, shrieking, screeching noise, mean that Ghettogem have entered the world of recorded music kicking and screaming (or more likely kicking and screaming someone else).

From Holland to New York we go for DFA associate Gavin Russom’s latest release, The Purge, on Entropy Trax. The title track is an amalgamation of sounds, with Russom fusing bleeding acid lines and disco pulses. Instead of the in vogue tendency of using Chicago drums, Russom’s backing is mechanical, the rigid beat sounding like a click track used during a recording session.

Augmented later on by atmospheric synth washes, it makes for a interesting digression from the jack track-fixated continuum. However, the release highlight is “Enthroned” on the flip side. Clocking in at 13 minutes, it draws on the legacy of dub and disco production techniques. The backing rhythm pulses along hypnotically and is interspersed with slivers of glassy percussion. More importantly though, it is lent added depth thanks to a series of panning effects and the vocal sample the Russom uses starts off sounding like a human but morphs into what could be a small army of chirping locusts.

“Mutant disco, wave and dub are definitely all big influences on my production style in general. Each of those styles of music has to do with resistance, storytelling and deep interaction with one’s environment, and maybe that’s where the connection lies,” he explains.

“As far as inspiration and influence go I try to keep a wide view of the things that I love and create my music in a way where different styles can coexist and interact with each other to make something new. I try to dig for what are the deeper threads that connect the outward “styles” of music that I’m drawn to.” This approach feeds into Russom’s DJing as well, attempting to “tell a story that lies beneath genres and taps into the deep connections that can happen with music. Elements getting introduced and morphing into something else, yeah that’s my shit. Aesthetically, but also in terms of storytelling.” This Russom states is one of music’s great abilities, “the way in can articulate the transient and flexible nature of identity by creating those kinds of shifts and evolutions in the context of a single track.”

Despite the fact that Russom is using more sleight of hand than a Vietnamese money changer, “Enthroned” isn’t studied or too clever for its own good, and the various layers of noise and sound don’t detract from Russom’s primal groove. Russom says: “Although I’m definitely interested in unconventional sounds and the territory where noise becomes sound and vice versa in my productions in general, I really tried to push these things on “Enthroned”. Mainly I was interested in getting synthesizers and effects to sound not only like elements of the natural world, but also like the echoes those elements create in the inner world. Nature is a deep thing for me, and it’s political as well since every day the planet is getting more and more devastated. I wanted to take these elements and place them firmly in the context of dance since that connection feels important.”

He adds that some of his early studio experiments also shaped the release. “I was inspired by unearthing some very early tapes of mine like these where the environmental sound of the recording plays as much of a role as the music. I’m pretty exhausted by more ‘mainstream’ club music popping up everywhere that follows a generic pattern of build-up, break, big finish.” Russom finds it boring and oppressive after a while, so he viewed “Enthroned” as an “even bigger push towards something more interesting and [as you say] unconventional, while still staying close to the dance floor. To me that sensibility is a big part of the legacy of underground techno, why it is a radical and experimental musical form even from its very beginnings.”

With more releases planned for Entropy Trax, Russom will continue to plough his own furrow. Indeed, what all of these releases – from I.B.M. to Cortini to Ekman and Kerridge – have in common is that they are largely divorced from the contemporary environment, with only some tenuous reference points. Maybe that’s because the best (music) is noise.

Richard Brophy