A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Macro/Micro: Sun Ra & Merzbow – Strange City (Cold Spring)

Merzbow album review

Both Merzbow  and Sun Ra’s “music” deal with large scale forces, extending beyond the limits and confines of The Human, towards a more thorough understanding of:

  1. The World We Live In;
  2. What “Music” Is (And Does).

Sun Ra’s music concerns itself with the intergalactic and the extraterrestrial – Big Band, Bebop, Fusion and Free Jazz  being bent, broken, and re-shaped into a whirling dervish of Atomic Age mysticism. Sun Ra might well be the Buckminster Fuller or the Ludwig Wittgenstein of the Jazz Age, or a Big Band take on H. P. Lovecraft and his Cosmic Horror.

Merzbow’s harsh tumult, however, might be the sound of Post-Industrial/Late Capitalist ennui. It is the sound of complex systems feeding back on themselves, choking on its own detritus. It is all the angst and anxiety of a hyper-accelerated, interconnected culture, run through a wood chipper and blasted in our faces like some colorful confetti.

Either way, both Merzbow and Sun Ra concern themselves with the extra-human, trying to zoom out to clearly perceive the insane intricacies of macro-level forces – both physical and societal.

Given the influence and massive oeuvre of both artists, it stands to reason that two of the giants of noise would come together, even across time and space.

On Strange City, Merzbow was granted full access to Sun Ra master tapes from 1966’s The Magic City and 1967’s Strange Strings (thus, Strange City). Merzbow goes on to process, layer, warp, chop, screw, and squiggle the saxes, flurrying drums, and blatting brass into two monolithic tracks, “Livid Sun Loop” and “Granular Jazz Part 2” (on the CD version, at least. There’s a vinyl version as well, with a completely different track listing.)

“Livid Sun Loop” is the jazzier of the two, with the Sun Ra recordings peeking through Masami Akita’s trademarked gusts of livid, vivid harsh noise – like walking full-blast into some dirt hurricane. Akita’s noise obscures the original acoustic recordings completely, at times, giving the effect of watching some 1940s city in a snow globe, full of dirty brown water.

“Granular Jazz Part 2” finds the Arkestra as grist for Merzbow’s post-apocalyptic laboratory, as whirring, chirruping motor pulses meet senseless, abstract oscillations, like some mad theremenist, drunk on cough syrup and intergalactic epiphane. Emergency sirens rise and fall throughout the tumult, while skittering jazz percussion crawls across the landscape like an invasion of some megalithic deep sea creatures.

As is almost always the case, Strange City is a divisive listen, with some critics claiming it to be the greatest noise blast of the year, while others think its total b.s., less the sound of Merzbow working with the Sun Ra recordings, instead “Merzbow plays Sun Ra in the background,” as Heathen Harvest’s Thomas Boettner put it in his review.

Both sides have a point, and it cuts right to the quick of one of this blog’s main pursuits: What exactly makes for a good noise record?

How To Make Noise MusicIn the book Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Philosophy Of Noise, edited by Michael Goddard, in the essay “A Chronic Condition: Noise And Time,” influential noise theorist Paul Hegarty speaks on Merzbow’s process, as a continuation of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters’ Merz concept of post-industrial art:

“This is the reason for Japanese noise artist Merzbow’s prolific output – the endless proliferation of merz sound takes away the possibility of mastery. On individual albums there may be track divisions, but there is very little in the way of let-up or release. Where there is calm, it is only an undertow of anticipation of noise to come – like being bound and awaiting blows that bring pleasurable pain but not release… The endless proliferation of his releases (usually double figure every year) creates both a sense of pre-emptive fatigue and the possibility of continual surprise, as well as the impossibility of keeping up with everything and controlling the Merzbow oeuvre.”

This paragraph ties Merzbow into the post-industrial trajectory, as well as illustrating noise’s intersection with extreme sex and all of the incumbent philosophies that go along with it.

Merzbow Sun Ra review

While Hegarty maintains that it’s impossible to master noise, Masami Akita has no doubt learned a thing or two over the span of over 280 records. While critics like Heathen Harvest’s Boettner feel that Merzbow’s noise is senseless, crude, and bludgeoning, we wonder if there ears are trained to pick up on the nuances? Merzbow’s noise seems well-tuned and finely placed – at times obscuring the action, but more often than not, complementing Sun Ra’s intergalactic explorations. Take, for instance, a few minutes into “Livid Sun Loop”, when the piercing trebley feedback stops its dentist drill impersonation to encompass a mid-range spectrum, just in time to make room for a blatting tuba or trombone. It’s a musical moment, using extra-musical sounds – one of the main pursuits of Noise Music, and post-industrial music in general.

While many maintain that Noise may be the most decadent, pointless, self-indulgent medium in the universe, it doesn’t change the fact that its got its acolytes and practitioners, same as any other genre or movement. While Merzbow may not be the best noise musician (which would require setting guidelines as to what that might mean), he’s certainly one of the most prolific and influential. If one wanted to make noise, of any of its flavors and varieties, listening to some Merzbow records would be a fine place to start.

With that note in mind, I’m hoping to keep up with #MerzbowMondays, making my way through as many Merzbow records as possible, trying to determine what is good noise and what is mediocre mess.

One of the things I hope to achieve with this investigation is providing instruction and insight into how exactly the noise is made and produced. Amazingly enough, in all of my years of trawling the Internet for tutorials and concrete information regarding underground genres, there’s not a lot of content out there about how to make noise music – or experimental music in general – let alone how to make really good noise.

My question/query/thought for all of you out there:

  1. What are some classic noise albums you’d like to see covered on Forestpunk?
  2. Would anyone like to participate in a series of tutorials or instructional articles? I’d love to talk to some noise heads out there, learn about yr favorite gear, advice for mixing or mastering, how you interpret your philosophy into yr art, etc. etc. I’m especially looking for advice for digital noise musicians, as there’s not a lot of it out there and there’s a real prejudice against digital art in the noise subculture.

One of the risks of people not taking the time to delve into underground/unconventional/uncommercial music is it could go away forever. Noise, as kind of an anti-pop, breaks down the repetitive predictable structures of pop songs into longform abstraction, much in the way that Schoenberg or Weber would deconstruct the symphony into a kind of atonal orgy.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, observations, and for learning from one another! Let’s keep shit weird!

Strange City is out as both a CD and on 180-g vinyl from Cold Spring.

Merzbow Official FB


Merzbow Official Homepage

Sun Ra FB 

Sun Ra Homepage
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