A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Merzbow Monday: Merzbow – Rainbow Electronics (Alchemy, 1990) album review

Culled from 21 hours of archival recordings, Merzbow’s Rainbow Electronics is a noise symphony in 4 movements.

Merzbow – Rainbow Electronics (Alchemy, 1990)

Noise albums can come in two varieties – major and minor releases to pick an arbitrary binary a hierarchical stance that’s rather antithetical to the genre as a whole. That is to say, for every Pulse Demon or 1939 or Venereology there could be dozens of live recordings, slight EPs, collabs, and oddball experiments. This isn’t just true for Merzbow but for most of the hyper-prolific noise artists, Which is to say, most of them…

The minor releases seem to be where the artists try out new ideas, experimenting with new tools, techniques, and approaches to making sound. As is often the case, many of these experiments are abject failures. Then after an experimental period the artist will emerge with a “major album” where they apply all that they’ve learned in a crystallized whole.

Rainbow Electronics is undoubtedly one of those crystals. Not only is it one of Merzbow’s most popular releases, it’s also widely considered to be the culmination of the period between 1987 and 1990 from which the source material stems.

Rainbow Electronics is made up of a handful of recordings which are then manipulated and processed using every tool and trick in Masami Akita‘s toolkit. The end results are then presented as one epically long, monolithic 73-minute track. It serves as a sort of mastercut megamix of Merzbow’s material from that era as well as a catalog of his noisemaking techniques of the time.

Although the classic, original release from Alchemy Records was released as one insanely long 73-minute noise odyssey, Rainbow Electronics was re-released on vinyl as a 2LP on Milan’s Urashima Records, where the longform composition is cut into 4 sections to fit on vinyl. This creates the temptation to treat Rainbow Electronics as a sort of noise symphony – one epically long grand work which is cut up into individual segments, aka “movements.”

The tendency to apply meaning and narrative to instrumental or symphonic works is a relatively recent invention. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 2 didn’t garner the name “Moonlight Sonata” until almost 30 years after it was written, when poet Ludwig Rellstab compared the piece to a boat floating on the dark waters of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It’s a simple, striking image that’s easy to latch on to and captures the mood and emotions of the piece eloquently.

What, then, could we call Rainbow Electronics? Merzbow’s Junkshop Symphonique? The Dangerous Obsessions sonata?

Attempting to ascribe one meaningful, definitive narrative to Rainbow Electronics would be a mistake, however. It completely negates both the spirit and the approach to noise music of that time. Rather than making definitive statements, Merzbow’s releases – especially from this era – sound like emanations from some cosmic factory. User Stalvern on RYM referred to Rainbow Electronics as “a dream odyssey into an impossible machine,” which puts it rather succinctly and nicely. Rather than something concrete and permanent, Rainbow Electronics leans into the wabi sabi nature of noise music. It feels like some vast, complex system that could take these 14 fragments of European recordings and spit out a new album each time.

Rainbow Electronics leans into the wabi sabi nature of noise music. It feels like some vast, complex system that could take these 14 fragments of European recordings and spit out a new album each time.

I used to find that tendency frustrating. I take some comfort in the impermanence, now.

Noise music is supposed to inject uncertainty and a loss of control into music and sound art. It scrubs out the ego like some existential tape head. It is the sound of systems, larger than life and largely incomprehensible.

To try and turn noise music into composition somewhat flies in the face of the purpose of the genre itself. It could be “machine music,” sure, as well as “the art of noises.” But once something is codified, understood, and controlled it ceases to be noise and it loses much of its vitality.

As is often the case on Merzbow Monday, there are all manner of theoretical threads you could suss out from Rainbow Electronics. But this is music not an academic lecture. The greatest concepts in the world won’t matter one jot if it’s not something you want to listen to.

Rainbow Electronics, fortunately, is eminently listenable although it’s longform structure and non-musical sound sources will likely be taxing for those not already fairly used to noise music. Even for the uninitiated, Rainbow Electronics works as a time capsule of the sounds of late 80s/early 90s Merzbow. You’ll hear plenty of HNW harsh wind, have no fear, but it has a peculiar, particular mid-range quality that suggests this static has spent some time on a 4-track or cassette. It’s different than the more full-bodied, full-frequency noise of later, more digital, work. The overall impact is of some arthouse experimental sci-fi movie, encountered on VHS or late-night cable and, perhaps, never seen again.

There are plenty of other details that make Rainbow Electronics stand out in Merzbow’s discography and in the noise genre as a whole. Most pertinently, Masami Akita is never content to just fall asleep on the noise generator. Every moment of Rainbow Electronics feels sculpted, polished, curated. Oftentimes the noise drops out entirely, leaving only spartan field recordings of clanging, reverberant metal along the lines of Merzbow’s earliest recordings.

Rather than coming up with one comprehensive, over-arching narrative to rule them all, Rainbow Electronics invites you to make your own. Let your mind wander – through haunted toy stores and cursed Atari games; German psychedelic communes, full of utopianism and bad acid. It invites you to flick through anonymous catalogs of industrial junk in your mind’s eye while you let Merzbow’s edits play across yr imagination, scrubbing yr cerebellum and frontal lobe like a headcleaner.

Truly a high-point of mid-period Merzbow! Not to be missed!

Welcome to Merzbow Monday, where most weeks we post reviews or content related to the vast, nearly endless catalog of Masami Akita, aka Merzbow. Got a particular favourite Merzbow release you’d like to see covered on Merzbow Monday? Let us know in the comments or get in touch via Twitter!



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