Lucas Abela was preparing to play a garden hoe during a set in 2003 when he saw a broken pane of glass nearby on the floor. He put the hoe down and picked the glass up. Ever since, in show after sublimely traumatic show, his instrument has been a single sheet of glass. Or at least the glass begins the night as one piece. By set's end, it's in innumerable shards beneath his bare feet, mixing with the blood that pours down his face and from his mouth.
But if anyone can breathe new life into the concept of hurting oneself, it's Abela performing as one-man noise band Justice Yeldham. Now in his late 30s, Abela has been touring the globe for the past 14 years. His tools of choice have included sewing-machine-powered turntables and amplified katanas. But the glass adds elements of indeterminacy and danger far beyond those he could get from putting a microphone on a garden utensil: Even in the abrasive, blasphemous outer rim of noise music, nothing quite comes close to Justice Yeldham's spectacle. That's what sets him apart. Here's a man enticing a razzle-dazzle range of brutal and beautiful from a square foot of glass as he engages in a gory struggle against himself.
"Although some of my performances can be bloody, I'd like to point out that this is simply symptomatic and not my goal," Abela told CMJ's Christopher Weingarten in 2005. "I don't want to be a G.G. Allin-type character."
Indeed, there's a careful, predictable method behind what may seem like masochistic peril. Abela keeps a collection of found glass around his house. When he is on tour, though, he scours the new town for material until he finds the night's perfect instrument. He cuts the treasure into a scalene triangle, plants a contact mic on its underside, and plugs it into a series of pedals and processors worn around his waist like a toolbelt.
The suspense starts before the show begins, as Abela wanders the stage without shoes, visibly disheveled, like a patient escaped from a nearby asylum. After his gear and instrument are plugged in and flipped on, he draws out a tube of KY Jelly, slathering his face and mouth with the gelatinous goop. The slippery texture allows him to "play" the glass. That is, he can slide his face against it at various angles, speeds and pressures. The glass and the microphone respond to each shift. Everything but speech and song come from Abela's mouth: screeches of anguish, back-of-the-class fart sounds, manic huffs that suggest a possessed Dizzy Gillespie, throat singing that recalls the haunted squeal of Yoko Ono's recent live sets. But that's what you can hear on one side of the glass. There, behind the glass, Abela sounds like a human. But when the audience hears his voice—applied to the glass and routed through a dozen devices—it registers more like beast and industry: It's an eerie inhumanity bent into form by the hand that doesn't hold the glass, which turns the pedal knobs to evoke dying-animal moans of agony, the factory floor's monotone hum, or the dynamite fury of a demolition site. They fuse with squalls of feedback, coaxing out harmonies and patterns.
Oh, and then he begins dismantling his instrument. With his hands, teeth or forehead, Abela violently alters the pane's shape and size, thereby altering the pitch of the sounds it produces. Blood from a rock, rock from blood: Abela has ingeniously found a way to squeeze dynamic music from an ordinary, unmusical object.
This minimal skirmish of man and machine bears little similarity even to other "noise" artists. On a purely sonic level, it would fit nicely between Throbbing Gristle's civilization-wrecking racket and the fuzz and frenzy of Japanese psych-rock. But Abela's arresting vision of music syncs better with the body art mavericks of the 1970s. Think of Marina Abramovic´, who in Rhythm 0 (1974) invited museumgoers to do whatever they felt like to her body. "Once you enter into the performance state, you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do," she said.
Or there is Chris Burden, who has been shot, kicked down stairs and crucified on a Volkswagen. Seeing Abela barefoot on the stage, crunching over shards of his former instrument, one is reminded of Burden's naked slither through a glass-strewn parking lot. Testing the limits of their artistic medium and of the human frame, fleetingly offering this all to the public, these artists are Abela's precursors. Still, not everyone has the stomach for blood sport.
"On occasion people have fainted or even been sick as a result," Abela told an interviewer in a zine. "Those left are usually simply excited at this point as I work myself up, especially when the biting or smashing begins. Finally at the end, a mixture of relief and glee and maybe some concern if I had a particularly bloody show."
Like Burden, like Abramovic, danger is Abela's medium. At a 2006 gig in Ann Arbor, near the climax of his theater of cruelty—as the julienned, shoeless Abela lurched into the glass, shattering it all over the reddened and glinting floor—someone in the audience screamed "Suicide!"
Fresh from the show, a message-board poster summed it up: "It almost happened."
Justice Yeldham plays Nightlight with Clang Quartet, Twilight Memories, Google Earth, Vagina Teeth/Jesus Teeth and Glass Witch Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $6.