When people say that music from any given genre "all sounds the same," they're actually saying they aren't familiar enough with the genre to make valid distinctions. The aggression and abstraction of noise music seems especially prone to this criticism.
Noise is governed by a set of normative gestures entirely different from (yet parallel to) those that govern folk and pop idioms. Rock music all sounds the same at a basic structural level, too—verses, choruses, bridges. It only becomes distinct when its creators' personalities show through the form.
And, as four recordings from four North Carolina noise artists issued on recycled cassette tapes by RRRecords illustrate, the same holds for noise. BoyZone, Clang Quartet, Jeff Rehnlund and Relay for Death exemplify the depth and breadth of noise.
Of the four recordings in question, the noise of BoyZone—a rotating, Trianglewide ensemble that here includes Rehnlund, Ryan Martin, Galen Williams and Roxanne and Rachal Spikula—is the most anthemic. From the first, it tears out of your speakers like an automobile accident; at length, it amounts to a grand mal seizure for your stereo. It's hostile, but it's a gleeful, generous hostility that seductively proffers the grotesque joy of its convulsed world. It flails as if each scorched passage were a blind leap. Fluttering trills launch screaming feedback, which plummets down in staticky detonations, splitting open to disgorge electrocuted voices. This Chinese-box quality imposes an intuitive cadence onto the nebulous low-tech broadsides. Although it's often tempting to read harsh noise as a political statement, this is more giddy cri de coeur than knock on bourgeois convention.
Alternately, Clang Quartet—the body of one man (Scotty Irving), the stage name of four and the formidable sound of eight—uses its two 20-minute live recordings to document "the many peaks and valleys" of his "personal journey as a Christian." Live, Irving dons his "Armor of God," a junkyard assemblage of metal plates and other refuse, ripping horrid electronic noise out of it at various contact points while working over a rack of distortion pedals and broken cymbals strewn on the floor. It's a discordant passion play—not the sterilized, capitalistic Christian worship music of the modern mega-church, but the wild, glossolaliac Christianity of the desert charismatic. As an antidote to this dross, Irving gives us the agony, the ecstasy, the dark night of the soul—the painful rent through which spirit, stymied by the platitudes of "praise music," might emerge. Instead of waiting for the rapture, he's stalking it in this world.
BoyZone member Rehnlund also gets a solo release. His contribution, a "collage of field recordings from Korea, India and North Carolina, prepared instruments, snips of live takes and old tapes funneled onto the recycled master from various environments," is the most prismatic and carnivalesque of the bunch. It has the broadest sound palette and tonal range: Some tracks sound like BoyZone's concussed gibberish. Some are musique concrète palimpsests. Others are whimsical cartoon worlds indifferent to the boundary between constructed sound and atmospheric bleed-in. Imagine if your child's Speak & Spell were demonically possessed.
Rehnlund's release is also more mimetic than the others. It's about this world and its jostling objects, rather than the dark field beyond it. Rehnlund keeps those objects largely intact, minding the edges and angles of things, though he does inflict a kind of manipulative violence upon it: His is a house gone anthropomorphically haunted, as if you came home one day to find maniacal teacups rioting in the hutch, window shades flapping like tongues, silverware clamoring in the drawer.
Finally, Relay for Death's release is the most magisterial and thorough, moving with the same sense of dwarfing scale and expanded time as tectonic plates. Its 17-minute opening track finds a soupy bass tone gradually wracked by electrical distortions, like a soundtrack for a dying star. Elsewhere, it suggests the sound of gale-force winds howling around bulky, irregularly shaped structures of iron. It is the most uncompromising, refusing to decorate its stoical, time-lapsed progressions, which makes any moment on it not very different from any other moment on it. Yet, it's emphatically different from the other three records in question.
These four albums are the Independent Weekly's July 2008 Albums of the Month.
These four North Carolina noise cassettes constitute part of RRRecords' "Recycled Music" series, which releases new works by noise artists on old, repurposed commercial cassette tapes.
Founded in 1984, RRRecords is both a record store in Lowell, Mass., and a record label specializing in noise. RRR proprietor Ron Lessard (known as "RRRon" in these cacophonous circles) records as Emil Beaulieau and has released his own music alongside such avant luminaries as Merzbow, Wolf Eyes, Nurse with Wound and Burning Star Core. He opted to release Clang Quartet after having Scotty Irving's one-man act performed at the RRRecords shop. He subsequently discovered BoyZone, Rehnlund and Relay for Death via an open call for demos on his Web site (www.rrrrecords.com). But you won't find this music on a CD anytime soon, at least not from RRR.
"I find them to be a very boring medium," says Lessard of CDs. He only releases music on vinyl and recycled cassettes now. "There are a few folks who like to damage their CDs, so they get all glitched-out and start skipping. Damaged CDs make for a great sound source, but they are not interesting enough to be issued as a finished release."
The appeals of recycling tape include its environmentally friendly approach and that one often gets "ghost images" of the original recording on the tape. (This not only suits noise music's aleatoric leanings but makes for hilarious moments, as when Clang Quartet's first piece lets out into Cher's "Love on a Rooftop.") And, in a scene where analog tape manipulation is a common instrument of choice, a cassette lends itself to further manipulation by the user. Oh, and there's the practicality: "Since I own a record store, I have a never-ending supply of cassettes."
Cassettes also strengthen the identity of the noise community by separating it from the accepted parameters of the music industry at large. At a time when even the CD seems to be fading into MP3-based oblivion, the widespread resurgence of tapes to distribute noise music differentiates the scene.
"Noise for me is not a listening process. It's a living process," Lessard explains. "Cassettes not only have a soul, they are the only medium that has actual moving parts: the little wheels spin and drag the tape across the head. It's also the only medium that makes its own noise. Take any cassette and shake it; it's like a baby's rattle. Now that's what I call soul."