MusicWeekend

An Explosion of Alternative Noise

Tired of contemporary pop’s mild spareness, craving music packed tight with crunch? These are four the noisiest albums rock albums around.

Tired of contemporary pop’s mild spareness, craving music packed tight with crunch, I went looking for the noisiest albums I could find. That two of the artists reviewed below used to be members of the greatest and noisiest rock band ever is a delight, and the other two make quite the racket as well.

Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador)

Since Sonic Youth’s breakup, Kim Gordon has attempted with her other bands (Body/Head, Glitterbust) to break free into looser, noisier realms without quite clicking into definition. On her first solo album under her own name, she’s assembled a skewed range of electric and electronic musical settings whose varied, genre-hopping cohesion affirms the stark power of her voice.

Thanks to intermittent synthesizer beats and drum machine thwacks, this album has been advertised as a total reinvention, but really it represents the tweaking of two modes she’s always excelled at: loud, fast, urgent, wailing guitar anthems, and quieter, but equally harsh, spoken-word musique-concrete extravagances. When the latter songs appeared on Sonic Youth albums, they played as interlude throwaways, included to provide an appropriately avant-garde aura. Here, her juxtapositions reveal a grand tension-and-release game, ping-ponging back and forth between gratification and exquisitely painful anticipation. She keeps drawing out the difficult songs, letting her voice grate, the guitars crack, the digital creaks rake against the ears with only a hint of melody — then, after what feels like forever, the music snaps, and the next song erupts in overwhelmingly pleasurable noise.

The whirlwind sirens, and rousing cries of “Murdered Out” (is she singing “turn me on” or “tornado”?) sound so furious partially because the song is preceded by “Paprika Pony,” a murmured, meditative exercise set to a trap keyboard loop and finger piano; similarly, the slow, rumbling “Earthquake” wouldn’t sound so poignant and labored if it didn’t follow “Hungry Baby,” a breakneck storm of static and excitement.

Sometimes the thornier songs have hooks hidden in them too: the rolling guitar thunder that appears halfway through “Cookie Butter,” for instance, and the plastic clang of her bassline in “Don’t Play It” both anchor her echoey, associative talking in an ominous, defiant mood. As if eyeing Billie Eilish and the advent of whisper-pop, Gordon sings uncomfortably close to the mic, and her every breath becomes a percussive element — a reminder of her presence. Through jagged dynamics and shifting musical restlessness, she’s found a path forward and realized a dogged, messy show of fierce mastery.

Thurston Moore: Spirit Counsel (Daydream Library Series)

Thurston Moore’s solo recordings in the past decade have been crisp, peaceful, and relatively songlike in structure, albeit dotted with long guitar breaks — i.e., exactly like latter-day Sonic Youth minus his former bandmates. This album diverges: at two-and-a-half hours long, it consists of three extended instrumental compositions that construct a leisurely, focused space for him to meditate, improvise on guitar, and dig into repetitive, cathartic grooves.

Not since the late ’90s has Moore wandered with such unhurried, slapdash ease. By his standards, these pieces aren’t particularly loud or quiet, aggressive or atmospheric (usually); whether he’s playing with his new band or improvising unaccompanied, tempos and textures approach the conventional middle.

Rather than capturing particular landscapes or surreal images, as Moore has done in the past, these pieces aim to sound like a clangy, jangly indie-rock band improvising in the studio. Given a context of minimalist repetition, small changes can lead to larger ones, as when “Galaxies” very gradually shifts from static chaos to jaunty strumming and back to chaos again, over the course of an hour.

By now his signature trick of extracting calm from abrasion is overly familiar — his previous few solo albums have worn out this approach — and often here he chooses warm, simple, soothing guitar tones, no abrasion required. The opening 10 or 15 minutes of “Alice Moki Jayne” glow, as morning light seeps through his translucent guitar, and throughout the album he maintains a dazzled wonder, a gracious infatuation with electric sound and how it refracts into chunks and slivers.

I find this effect more moving when a singer is present to witness the music’s beauty and feel dazzled. This album’s trance breaks only during the most comically distorted moments, when his guitar splinters and threatens to disrupt the flow, especially the goofy, whooshing, cheerful conclusion to “Alice Moki Jayne.”

Immersive, relaxing, grandly constructed, this album has a restrained, almost languorous quality that impedes the arc of its motion. There’s something hemming in the range of its sound effects.

Otoboke Beaver: Itekoma Hits (Damnably)

This angry, amusing album compiles two EPs and a smattering of previously unreleased songs by the most extreme of Japanese hardcore punk bands. Furiously unrelenting, even by the standards of the genre (which is focused on harnessing chaotic energy), the collection coheres perfectly.

Jumping and thrashing around with endless comic momentum, speeding by in such a daft blur it takes time to notice the punchy hooks and crafty transitions, Otoboke Beaver run riot. Their music’s immediacy stems from the synthesis of two honorable punk traditions: harsh, condensed nuggets of riffage designed to awe you with technical mastery, and goofy, shouty, unpredictable group singing in the vein of the Raincoats or Liliput.

Usually when punk singers yell at and bounce off each other it suggests a primitive fragility, a means to create and counteract the feeling that everything is about to fall apart; here, lead singer Accorinrin and her bandmates have calculated their shrieks and gasps with expertise, for abrasion’s sake. Yet there’s an enthusiastic humor about this music; they dive eagerly into their noise vortex because it’s fun. Hardly awash in distortion, these songs are crisply defined but blindingly fast, overflowing with textual violations as aggressive and silly as their guitar sounds.

The first half of “Bad Luck” is a typically upbeat, defiant punk song, but halfway through the tempo slows, their voices become sweeter, and they swerve into a mock pop version of the same song, complete with oohing harmonies. Then, as if disgusted, they rev back up into an even faster, rougher punk explosion before ending (how else?) abruptly. Meanwhile, the barbed, chugging “Datsu, Hikage no Onna” crashes every which way. In a deep, blustery voice, Accorinrin announces “I hate you,” and her bandmates cheerfully respond: “You! hate! meeeeee!”

“Don’t-o light-o my fire,” they warn, but it’s too late — get them going and they have to pummel themselves into oblivion. This enthusiastic, exhausting album takes you for a ride.

Black Midi: Schlagenheim (Rough Trade)

In an age when banal pop product is slow, restrained, and even, this experimental English guitar band stand up for the rock verities not by straining for expressionist solemnity but by getting silly: joyfully pointless tempo changes, a shifting array of jittery guitar effects, countless moments of unexplained absurdity for their own sake. All reactionaries should be so imaginative!

Clunky and expeditious, this album depends on the contrast between two competing dissonant noises: the blocky, immersive whine of Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s guitar and the hoarse, mannered whine of Geordie Greep’s voice.

The former buzzes and hums, scratching petulantly at the strings, first expanding to thunder and fill the space, then shrinking to chime calmly and quietly. This album’s weird harmonies and compulsive tempo changes have inspired comparisons to ’70s progressive rock, but with prog, the constant musical changes are meant to be showy, whereas Black Midi’s soothing, through-composed excursions, often lacking defined verses or choruses,  swathe in a warmly enveloping blanket of static.

Yet the singer can’t be ignored. As a goat-voiced mewler, Greep could have followed the tradition of dorky singers feeling intimidated by energetic music; instead, as if trying to prove himself worthy of all that guitar noise, he scrunches up his mouth, bleats, trills words, makes tentative gestures toward scatting, and generally contorts himself into elaborate knots. On “Bmbmbm,” an extended guitar stomp, he repeats “She moves with a purpose/and what a magnificent purpose,” over and over (or is it a “porpoise”?), gradually speeding up as the music gets more agitated; by the end of the song he’s shrieking the lines so quickly that, thanks to the repetition, he captures the feeling of a scary, singular obsession. Elsewhere, especially on the more nebulous songs, he just jabbers, distracting from the guitar. Aiming for maximum eccentricity, they settle for conventional tokens of weirdness. They’d be weirder without their singer. 

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