A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Merzbow Monday: Merzbow – E-Study album review

Like walking through a forest of rebar, getting caught in the crossfire of some BB battle, 1981’s E-Study is about as far from Harsh Noise as you can get in Merzbow’s catalog.

As i noted in last week’s edition of Merzbow Monday, reviewing the excellent Mukomodulator from earlier this year, people who don’t listen to much noise music feel that it “all sounds the same.” While there’s no doubting the masses of uninspired HNW albums out there, that stance belies a lack of knowledge and awareness of the genre as well as its historical roots in 20th Century avant-garde art and music.

E-Study, one of the earliest Merzbow albums, from 1981, couldn’t be further from Masami Akita’s trademarked scouring, abrasive black wind. There’s nary a HNW to be heard on E-Study, not even an ANW. Instead, E-study is two longform tracks of pinging, clattering improv percussion.

like Alexander Hacke doin’ the old soft shoe in metal cleats inside Neubauten’s infamous water tower rehearsal space//image: Water Towers, Bernd and Hilla Blecher

E-study starts off slight, like a herd of goats grazing in some mountain village; like a chest of antique silverware being emptied on the floor; like Alexander Hacke doin’ the old soft shoe in metal cleats inside Neubauten’s infamous water tower rehearsal space. The racket attracts some attention, bringing a flock of 8-bit geese to the rolling chartreuse hills of this Amiga village. A gentle knocking rhythm emerges, bringing to mind the distant clip-clop of an approaching horse. 

“The racket attracts some attention, bringing a flock of 8-bit geese to the rolling chartreuse hills of this Amiga village”

This is noise as hollow genre signifier or adjective but, instead, as the opposite of signal. Nothing of much import seems to be transmitted here. There’s no narrative here, no grand arc, apart from maybe a young Masami Akita bent over his assemblages. This is the art for art’s sake of Edgar Allan Poe, of Stravinsky – could anything be less artful, less exciting, less thrilling than a political screed?

No, there is no grand metanarrative here – no heroic march towards the Second Coming. Instead, E-Study is a study in apophenia, a musical rorscach test. It is 50 minutes of (loosely) organized sound for freaks who like to listen to sounds conjured out of junk, bric-a-brac, detritus, unlabelled black boxes emitting sickly squeaks and odd squawks. 

In short, it is a record for noiseheads. For people who like to listen to noise, it’s actually a rather good one. 

For one, the two lengthy tracks that make up E-Study – “PHR-E-1” and “PHR-E-2” – sound nice. It’s about as far as one can get from harsh noise in Merzbow’s catalog, in noise music in general. Instead, it’s got the airy, rarefied air of an improv action, the dust and solder of a white cube art gallery coating the ferric tape, bringing an air of respectability and raising the possibility of a Fluxus/Aktionist happening without the blood and feathers. With sound art and acousmatic music, which is to say music unconfined by Western tonality, it helps a great deal when each sound sounds good. That’s not to say that all sounds in sound art or acousmatic music need to be pleasant, per se. It raises similar questions and problems as unlikable characters in narrative arts. If there’s too much or too many of them, it makes spending time with them excruciating and the listener/audience unwilling to want to remain or return. 

Each and every sound comprising E-Study‘s 50 minutes sounds good, especially after the remastering this album received in 2009. It invites you to lose yrself in its metallic forest, in its asteroid field of ricocheting, swarming pings and tings. You’ll feel as if yr walking through the crossfire of some epic BB battle; as if yr lost in a forest of rebar, corrugated metal trees swaying in the wind. You’ll feel as if you’re living inside of a gigantic clock; inside the Tin Man’s chest, only to discover he had a mighty pneumatic heart the whole time. 

E-Study is an interesting and essential document from Merzbow’s earliest days. It reminds us of Masami Akita’s firm grounding in theory and avant-garde art history. It also reminds us of his excellence as an improviser and sound artist. For noise artists and listeners alike, take a moment and check out E-Study for a reminder there’s more to noise than the HNW.  

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