BY Russell Haswell in Frieze | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Noise Annoys

Living the nightmare of Japanese noise

BY Russell Haswell in Frieze | 10 SEP 97

Somewhere in Tokyo... God knows how close to the Earth's core the 20000V club is. After descending countless stairs, stepping over debris and slumped, motionless kids who look really the worse for their evening's gluttonous excess, you finally reach the entrance. You are greeted by a friendly enough man for this kind of place, who struggles to open the ultra-thick, extra-soundproofed door. The moment the seal is broken, a quiet club entrance is engulfed in what sounds like the fanfare at the gates of Hell. You fall in, drawn by the searing pitches of sound. The room inside is packed like a sardine can full of Kids desperate to catch a glimpse of Pain Jerk, a three piece Noise group. Only the front row of squashed punters can see because the stage is too low, but it all adds to the charm of the place. This noise totally Rocks. In the all-out attack on the listener's senses, temporary madness sets in - something like a drug-sustained orgasm during the renewal of your membership to the Mile-High Club in the toilets of a trans-Atlantic flight in the midst of a marathon bout of heavy turbulence with someone else growling in your ear.

The antagonistic assault ends and everyone heads off to the various vending machines in the corner of the room, dispensing everything from hot noodles to beer. The audience is so diverse in age and style of dress that you wouldn't guess they were all here for the same reason. (Popular misconception: these are not the Bosozoku, Japan's speed-addicted, crimped-haired youth who trade cassette recordings of each others' high-performance motorbikes revving up - they will be out disturbing the peace, running Yakuza errands or entangled in a battle with a rival gang.) Some show signs of occupational slumming, others are taking a well-deserved breather from the evening's performance in this darkened hole with the reputation of being the best Noise venue in Japan. The only competition was Osaka's Bar Noise - now closed - which only held a dozen people but provided, free of charge, all the junk'n'shit you might need to make your own impromptu Noise band.

Tonight's main attraction at the 20000V is Masonna ('masochist woman'), the Madonna fetishist who whips up such twisted track titles as 'Like a Vagina', 'Eat Maggot' or 'Glow in the Dark Glow'. Instant dismissal and desperately suppressed sniggers are the common reactions from tortured souls of a more deep-rooted, nervous disposition when given the chance to hear the heavily-edited, hyper-chaotic bursts of extreme noise that he calls 'harshtronics'; but a three and a half minute blast of Oasis or Reef is more likely leave you with a migraine. Performing live, Masonna looks like he is physically wired into the mains: home-made effects are strapped to his waist and triggered by a handheld device. Disentangling himself to assault the audience, he writhes on the floor like a newt that has just been dropped into a frying pan; jumping up to enter the audience with the drum kit of an earlier band, he takes out a few eager punters. (There is no retaliation - why should there be? Who's being victimised?) The sound hits you like a scaffolding pole flying at an incredibly high speed through the windscreen of your car, penetrating you right between the eyes; but this is only the beginning - milliseconds later you are sliced into mincemeat by shards of flying glass. The violent, hallucinatory, sonic spectacle lasts 5 minutes. Leaving the club, the sky is a sea of frequencies.

Japan has developed the most extreme form of Noise music along with a supporting subculture. Noise goes far beyond the constraints of the musical mainstream, both in form and distribution, kicking against Japan's corporate, future-tech surroundings and mirroring the high levels of street sound. Often lacking melody and a regular rhythm, it destroys all concepts of communication, challenging the conception, composition, performance and perception of most music. Some artists use Noise to attack the Capitalist production/retail system ('sound is a political and erotic weapon exploiting the major culture that is music' - Masami Akita), while others deny having anything more than a gratuitous desire to make disgusting and sadistic noise as Noise. Whatever the intention, the effects are often the same: nausea, fear and confusion induced by a cocktail of low and high frequencies and asynchronous rhythms.

Usually produced with an array of guitar/bass effects pedals, shifting feedback is accompanied by vocals (often of the 'arrrgh, my balls are being nailed to the floor!' variety), knackered synthesisers, oscillators, broken toy instruments and other home-made gadgets. The results can be gratuitously loud, and as brief as Masonna's five minute set or epic in length, restricted only by the storage medium (around 80 minutes for a five inch compact disc, depending on the manufacturer). For some, listening to Noise at home is an unimaginable activity, but who among us are not tempted by the 'challenging' items on the menu in sushi bars? With the incredibly high levels most Noise CDs are mastered at, the possibility exists to cause permanent damage to your amplifier, loudspeakers and, ultimately, your ears. The notion of the 'limit' is achieved; something that is neither physically possible nor able to be faithfully reproduced with analogue cassettes and vinyl records. The density of the experience offered by digital media is heightened by new developments in the electro-magnification of sound. You can listen harder.

The history of Noise music is not only traceable to the obvious sources. You must look further afield - crossing musical genres and geographic borders - to such high and low projects as Swimming Behaviour of the Human Infant, MB, MC5, P16.D4, Mellow Candle, Swans, Carcass, Budgie, King Crimson and Brainticket (to name a few), before going as far back as the British free improv-group AMM, or even Lou Reed's excursion into Metal Machine Music (mainstream rock's Noise gesture) and Luigi Russolo (DADA's Art of Noises). Although aware of these Noise instigators, the activities of current Noise musicians are not a tenuous regression into this large back catalogue (a reminder: Noise is not some child of - dare I say it - avant-garde music, more the autonomous bastard...). Most Japanese Noise Kids are not old enough to have experienced live any of the first or second generation Industrial/Noise groups, such as Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse (UK), SPK (Australia) and NON (USA), in their formative years during the late 70s and early 80s: Throbbing Gristle never played live in Japan and Whitehouse only began to in the last ten years. As in the West, Japan's interest in Noise and its subculture has come through the rarity of the material: small pressings, usually under 500, have instantly given limited edition Noise releases value in the Otaku 'collector' market. Many Japanese Noise bands encourage this with single figure editions - Masonna, for example, has produced one-off MiniDisc releases to order.

The history of Japan's own underground Noise scene too is neither a recent nor linear one. Not forgetting Japan's Hard-Core/Punk scene (people always speak very highly of GISM, GAI, CONFUSE and S.O.B.), Keiji Haino, alone and with his band Fushitsusha, has been releasing barrages of guitar Noise since the early 70s, and JoJo of Hijo Kaidan - by day proprietor of a successful shop selling collector's cards of American baseball players, by night a maniac Hawkwind fan - has played a major role as the owner of Japan's most consistent Noise label: Alchemy Records. Alchemy was the second label to release a CD by the key Japanese Noise group Merzbow (named after Kurt Schwitters' Merz-Bau, his 'Cathedral of erotic misery'), whose track titles are as phonetically strange as they are sonically extraordinary.

Describing his ongoing process of production - 'I make sound from the scum that surrounds my life' - Merzbow's Masami Akita (also a prolific author on the history of Sado-Masochism and erotica) explains: 'Nothing is really destroyed or disappears, as recycling is part of the production. It's a natural and necessary part of post-capitalism. There should be no illusion of only production, as was the case with early industrialisation. Present re-production systems point in the direction of a future hyper-dimension of physics. We no longer use a dialectical approach in our disposal/recycling system, only a forward movement to the reproduction of re-production'. Early recordings from 1979 onwards were ironic Dadaist collages of trash noises and electro-acoustic records collated so precisely as to render a truthful impression of original compositions, yet jeopardising 'success' by billing the recordings as fakes, exposing Akita's own plagiarism. Numerous cassette-only releases were uniquely packaged: wrapped in the pages of porn mags taken from local bins, for example - a kind of erotic Mail-Art excretion. During the late 80s, his recording process changed to the now-notorious, free-improvised screaming-feedback-of-oblivion exemplified by Noisembryo - Psycho-Analytic Study of Coital Noise Posture (1994). A limited edition of this release saw a one-off CD sealed into the CD player of a brand new Mercedes-Benz. It remains unsold.

In this accumulation of noise sourced from heaps of distortion equipment, structure is determined by a total collapse of the system. Akita sees the development of Noise as being no different to other forms of music, yet the roots of this sadistic sound are in the subversion of the processing instruments that are being pushed - through abuse and/or mastery - beyond their physical limits. The resulting creations are often a more sophisticated and pleasurable form of erotic Noise. It's this goal of taking music to new extremes, moving in new and different directions, that make what the future holds unimaginable. As you read this a 50 CD box set of Merzbow classics will have hit the high street, taking Akita into the 'most releases ever' chart, topping Sun Ra, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lee Scratch Perry, Pete Namlook and Atom Heart.

Equally prolific has been the hyperactive - think Tasmanian Devil - Yamantaka (previously Yamatsuka) EY . As a vocalist and guest musician on so many records of such a wide variety of styles (whose compositions he infests like a parasitic virus), the term 'pluralist' does little to describe his ultra-prolific, ideological form of production. Eye has been the instigator of millions of bands: Hanatarash (loosely translated as 'snot-nosed') is his Noise unit, notorious for using chainsaws and excavation equipment in live shows to produce a 'virtual experience of war' in which the audience encouraged him to the point of jeopardising his own life; Boredoms (you must know them - the Noise scene's most popular export whose name is a gesture of recognition towards the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP, probably the first independent record released); Sky Touch; Noise Ramones; Anarchy 7; Xox (Eye's speed black metal band, whose entire live show consists of 20 songs in one minute); Puzzle Punks; UFO or Die; Destroy 2 (drums and vocals only - 48 songs in 20 minutes); MC Hellshit and DJ Carhouse (a duo with Otomo Yoshihide, one of Japan's most creative DJs); and on, and on... Other (not) recommended artists include: Incapacitants; Niku-Zidousha; Flying Testicle; The Gerogerigegege; Aube; Solmania;Contagious Orgasm; and What a Smell.

Working within an insular culture and self-perpetuating hegemony, these musicians often collaborate and set up their own record labels. Only now is the Japanese underground Noise scene reaching a larger external audience, with more recordings being released by European and American labels than Japanese ones (which is ironic considering how heavily Britpop is consumed in Japan, but put that down to styling, the ambiguity of foreign lyrics and global retro culture). The amount of Western releases of Japanese Noise groups is partly due to the current popularity of all things Japanese, reflecting a fascination with the exotic and the unexperienceable, but also due to a more global desire for the extreme - an ambivalent reaction to millenarianism and apocalypse culture. Masami Akita claims there have never been more people making Noise. It's the second international language: noise is not exotic, only erotic.