Beyond Music: The Sound of Harsh Noise


Author: Seth Whitman

Out of the hundreds of distinct styles of music, none are as divisive as harsh noise. It’s a genre that casts aside all traditional music conventions; harsh noise artists achieve loudness and pure dissonance through a variety of noise-making techniques. Harsh noise has no melody and no structure. Many would contest even calling it “music,” which is just one of several things that make harsh noise such a fascinating genre. 

Unfortunately, the genre’s coverage is often limited to just one artist: Merzbow. As interesting and prolific as that project is (with over four hundred albums dating back to 1979), I wanted to see what else the genre had to offer. I semi-randomly selected ten albums to listen to for the purpose of writing this article. Surprisingly, I enjoyed all but one of them.

Prior to this, my only experience with harsh noise had been Merzbow’s Venereology and Pulse Demon, the first of which I completed and the second I listened to until it gave me a headache. That took about ten minutes.

The first album I chose was Kazumoto Endo’s While You Were Out. The harsh noise elements—typically screeching electronic feedback—were delivered in short, reverb-caked bursts of energy with an unusual amount of silence in between. This was totally unlike Merzbow. Already, I was seeing a harsh noise artist who had developed his own distinguishable style. Endo also used samples from disco and pop music, which were then looped, spliced, and sped up. At times, these samples were sped up fast enough to create more atonal noise. A variety of other noises were used as well. Rhythmic electronic thumping, metallic groaning (imagine an old metal door opening), a revving engine, and even a ringing telephone appeared in the mix. 

Overall, While You Were Out took an extremely confrontational style of music and made it into something exploratory and playful. With track titles like “Shinjuku Kahki Pants” and “Fear My Kung-Fu!,” I don’t think that While You Were Out was meant to be particularly serious. Even the album cover looks like Endo goofing off. 

Kazumoto Endo – While You Were Out [Album Cover]

My second choice was Sissy Spacek’s self-titled album. Unlike While You Were Out, Sissy Spacek emphasized the aggressive elements of harsh noise and combined them with guitars, drumming, and vocals that would feel right at home on a grindcore album. These things are sampled, spliced, and looped into a glitchy sound collage, complete with aggressive harsh noise feedback (similar to the screeching I mentioned earlier) and loud static, buzzing, and electronic hissing and crackling. Just like Kazumoto Endo, Sissy Spacek also demonstrates a unique style here. Elements of harsh noise and grindcore are manipulated and smashed together into a collage of different noises that is as interesting as it is intense. 

Sissy Spacek – Self-titled [Album Cover]

Next up was Prurient’s The History of Aids. This album is more musical than the previous two, with deep, bellowing synth drones beneath loud static crunching and distorted vocal samples of some really angry shouting. The History of Aids features other harsh noise elements like electronic buzzing and mechanical whirring, but it also uses field recordings. In addition to these, the album makes use of loud, sustained notes; one of them even gave me a headache. It may not be as chaotic as While You Were Out and Sissy Spacek, but where it lacks in energy, it makes up for with an atmosphere that feels truly sinister.  

The next album, simply titled 3, by Hanatarash, surprised me. Hanatarash was one of the bands/artists to pioneer harsh noise alongside Merzbow and Incapacitants.

Hanatarash hails from the Japanese punk scene of the ‘80s, where their dangerous live shows gained far more notoriety than their music. These shows often resulted in the destruction of venues and injury of the band or audience members. One such case was when the band’s frontman, Yamataka Eye, nearly cut his leg off with an electrical saw that was strapped to his back. In Hanatarash’s most infamous show of all, Eye used an excavator to destroy the wall of a venue and drive onto the stage. You can view a slideshow of the incident here.

It may be tempting to assume these notorious performances are where all the hype is coming from, but that isn’t the case. The music holds up. 3 features a variety of different sounds like crunchy static, screeching feedback, buzzing, shouting, shrieking, drumming, metal clanging and creaking, sped-up vocal samples, and the like. That might sound boring, but these sounds (and others) are arranged in a way that oozes creativity. A lot of these sounds are used in small repetitive segments that feel industrial and machine-like, and in many instances, there’s a solid drum beat that gives the noise a sense of direction and a particular pointedness. You might find yourself nodding your head to this one. I did. 

As the cherry on top, the album takes a break after the first four tracks and treats you to a recording of one of Hanatarash’s live performances. And wow. The recording is several minutes of a man shouting over the sounds of breaking glass, loud metal clanging, and the cacophony of who-knows-what being destroyed. You can also hear cheering from the audience and what might even be audience members getting in on the chaos. I don’t think there will ever be another band quite like Hanatarash.

As for the fifth album, I chose a record from Masonna, the name of which I cannot repeat on this blog. I’ll call it Generater for short. This album was punishing, rivaling even the legendary Pulse Demon. Harsh noise typically features loud electronic screeching, but in Generater, it takes the back seat to….actual screeching. Masonna’s trebly, distorted “vocal noise” is easily just as abrasive as electronic noise while being more intense in a uniquely emotive way. Generator also boasts percussive electronic noise and intermittent screeching feedback with blistering volume. This one made my ears hurt.

Masonna – Generater [Album Cover]

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to cover the other five albums in detail, but I can assure you that most of them are worth checking out. If Sissy Spacek or Hanatarash’s 3 are of interest to you, then consider checking out Tokyo **** Dynamite by The Gerogerigegege; if you liked While You Were Out, then give Merzbow’s 1930 a try; and if you’re the kind of masochist who would enjoy Masonna’s *********** Generater, then Merzbow’s Pulse Demon might be for you. And finally, I Am A Lake of Burning Orchids’ Innocence was an album that really moved me, combining harsh noise, ethereal drone, vaporwave, danceable electronic music, and all kinds of things into a textural, mesmerizing experience.

Harsh noise is a lawless world. Artists have no rules to follow but their own, and as a result they’re able to create something that matches the extremity of extreme metal while being wholly different from it. The only way to make bad harsh noise is to be boring. That was the case with the only album I didn’t care for, Skullflower’s ****** on a Pile of *******

I think that harsh noise’s divisiveness as a genre is in part due to a misconception that it’s all “just noise.” While it is noise, artists are still able to develop their own styles and express themselves in creative ways. In this sense, it’s like any other genre of music. Who needs those traditional music conventions, anyway? 

SETH WHITMAN | Tinnitus Enjoyer | KXSU Music Reporter

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