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The perverted joy of noise music

Chuyi Wang cuts through the static.

Artwork by Amelia Mertha Artwork by Amelia Mertha

It’s 8pm and I’m sitting inside Bay 4 of Carriageworks, freezing my arse off. I’m wearing a Talking Heads shirt and track pants—an outfit I thought would have netted me a good deal of social clout, but as I look around, it appears I’ve been thoroughly outclassed. If you’ve ever wondered what type of person shows up early to a harsh noise concert, it’s your lucky day: white, late-20s, bags under the eyelids, shirt a little too small, jeans a little too tight, Doc Martens, Xiu Xiu merch, leather jacket, almost exclusively male.

We’re all here for Lawrence English’s annual weirdo mini-fest Room40, and the line-up this year promises to be a grab bag of all the best ambient, drone, and noise superstars. Someone behind me whispers that they’re looking forward to a “sexy experience”. Another retrieves some ear plugs out from his tote bag and puts them in. Although I’ve heard about noise concerts for years, I still have no idea what to expect.

The first act, Pan Daijing, struts onto stage in a full dominatrix get-up, with what appears to be a medieval fencing mask. Unsure of exactly what loony programme I’ve gotten myself into, I also realise it’s far too late to leave now. Without warning, a chest-vibrating bass tone is pumped through a wall of amplifiers, a blast so woolly I swear I feel every sine wave rocket through my body—every last hertz. I’m at once nauseous and utterly exhilarated. And then the screaming begins.

Twisting an army of knobs while shrieking into a microphone, Pan Daijing sends cascading octaves of metallic screeches into the crowd which attacks what hearing I have left; imagine what Carly Rae Jepsen might sound like as a black metal frontwoman and you’d be pretty close. About three minutes in, however, I find myself worrying less about the onset of teenage tinnitus and instead strangely hypnotised by this barrage of sound. No listening experience had ever elicited such an extreme physical reaction from me. No music I’d heard had been so purely about sensation.

As I took the long train ride home from Redfern that night, I had not so much fallen in love with the confronting world of noise music as I had been gifted with a deep desire to understand it. On appearance, noise as a genre seemed just about the most sonically displeasing thing anyone could imagine. And yet, there’s a magnetism to its hyperbolic strangeness, and an almost charm to the boldness of its ‘fuck you’ to convention. I suspected that it was this attraction that drew so many dozens of Sydneysiders to Room40 that night. I began my research as soon as I got home.

As it turns out, creeping silently under the techno bars and house clubs, and spreading covertly through obscure Facebook events, there are noise musicians playing sets in grungy living rooms every night across Sydney. Their equipment can range from something as minimalistic as a microphone and looper, to a small fortune of bleep-machines that would make even Radiohead jealous. Instead of relying on tight  melodies or punchy rhythms, noise musicians weave an organic blanket of sputtering chaos,  textures swelling and shifting from dull to deafening. It’s an inherently different approach to conceptualising what music can or should be—what  some dismiss as the product of ‘talentless hacks’ and others revere as the logical conclusion of music itself.

The genre has its historical roots in the experiments of musique concrète composers like John Cage and Edgard Varese. The second half of the 20th Century saw increasingly harsh production,  ranging from Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music to the industrial jams of Throbbing Gristle. In the 80s and 90s, noise music somehow found a happy, though perhaps not surprising, union through artists like Whitehouse and Merzbow, whose mutilated and thoroughly NSFW album covers added to the genre’s alienating ugliness. Nowadays, although ‘pure’ noise music has mostly faded into obscurity, the rise of hybrid genres like noise pop and noise rap carry on its sputtering flame. While Australia certainly doesn’t have an underground scene as prominent as Japan or Europe, it has produced its fair share of noise superstars: from the glass-shattering Justice Yeldham to the blast-beating Nekrasov. The real heart of Australian noise music, however, isn’t in these big names: it’s in the one of five cassette releases you might see on the wall of Repressed Records, or at 11pm in a basement in Marrickville.

I reached out to Jack De Lacy, a Sydney musician who plays in the  art punk band Concrete Lawn, and has a solo noise project called Mutt on the side. We talked about how he got started, and I was surprised by the simplicity of his gear and process.

“At home, I use a 4-track cassette recorder to record everything I make,” he said, “I got really into making tape loops and distorting them with heaps of effects. From there I just started actively seeking out weird and broken sounds.”

I asked him why noise is an attractive medium of expression, and his response was more technical than I expected.

“Noise is process-driven, which is appealing because you’re aware of the impact everything is having on the sound. As opposed to traditional songs, where you actually play the sound, sound in noise music is achieved based on certain actions.”

Will noise ever enter the mainstream? Charting hybrid artists like Death Grips reveal a certain demand for music drenched in shrieking feedback and harsh blips, but the whole prospect might just be too challenging to ever be widely embraced. After all, it’s a genre that revels in its ability to shock, and there’s a certain degree of sadomasochism that will immediately turn off most prospective listeners. However, there’s also a joy to it all—a sick and perverted joy, but joy nonetheless. Like a Pollock painting, noise music gives the listener a twisted sonic palette onto which they can project their own emotions and come out the other side fulfilled in some way. It feels dangerous and threatening, and carries with it an aura of uncompromising darkness. But maybe that’s why it’s so thrilling.