According to the noise he creates, Masami Akita (the artist behind Merzbow) should be a certified maniac. But, as those who have witnessed him live can attest, his demeanour whilst constructing and demolishing this cacophonous architecture is that of a careful, deliberate, scientist. He is placid to the point of catatonia whilst fiddling with dials, switches, and homemade instruments. It is as if horrendous sounds pour out of him as he goes about his daily tasks. Forked lightning fries speakers as he makes breakfast, throat-ravaging bellows are emitted whilst he picks up his post, and pipes clang and wheeze following an early morning work-out. In short, this din emanates from his every pore. He breathes the noise and it sustains him.
Within this ocean of crashing tsunamis, lies a deep calm that is far from the surface. Initial listens by unfamiliar ears will likely result in knee-jerk disdain. But venture further in, accept the vicious embrace, and experience a comforting energy that upends the furious nature of our bombarded existence. Such is the case on his legendary album Venereology, which has been remastered and expanded since its release in 1994, and these changes present the album in a new light (grab a copy on Bandcamp).
A great many people have written stacks of elegant and enlightening prose on the theory of noise. From Luigi Rossolo’s 1913 manifesto The Art of Noise through to Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the focus is often on either the theoretical or technical aspects of the music. People may dismiss these sounds as “a bloody racket” or “white noise”, but they’d be hard pushed to recreate this level of dense and varied artistry. Paul Hegarty wrote in his essay Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music that:
“The listener struggles to find a way through, in or above the noise music but gives up at a certain point: rhythms are to be found, frequencies to be followed — it is not just random, but – eventually ‘the listener’ is pulverized into believing there is a link. Noise music becomes ambiance not as you learn how to listen, or when you accept its refusal to settle, but when you are no longer in a position to accept or deny.”
Prepare yourself for the assaulting “Klo Ken Phantasie”.
Hegarty’s language speaks of the visceral and it is this tangible aspect that, unfortunately, is frequently overlooked. Often it is the sheer physicality of the live experience that initially draws people in. The cannonade of the corporeal. Just as with a Sunn O))) concert, there is an element here, particularly with the likes of Merzbow, Prurient, and Pharmakon, that cannot be recreated in the comfort of your own home, no matter how understanding your neighbours are.
In interacting – submitting even – to these sounds in the (un)safety of a deafening music venue, the noise transcends suffering. The collectivized, unifying energy soothes rattled cells and tightened muscles. This absorbs as much as it attacks. It wrestles tranquility from soft ambiance and imbues it with a violence that swamps senses. It is the sonic equivalent of the French blood-drenched horror, Martyrs. If writer/director Pascal Laugier was unaware of the transcendental qualities of harsh noise prior to penning that film, I would be deeply surprised.
For this specially remastered re-release of 1994’s Venereology, Merzbow has gifted us four new tracks. The first of these is “Last Splash”, which appears in place of the frankly fantastic live performance of “I Lead You Towards Glorious Times”. This signals a change, not just in terms of track listing, but also in approach. A surprisingly coherent, looped death metal guitar riff spins before being gradually ground and drowned by bludgeoning clouds of bass and tempestuous digital noise. Considering that Akita released this record, initially, on Release Records (an imprint of Relapse Records) and wished to, appropriately, instil the aesthetics and approach of death metal (if not, necessarily, the sounds), this track is likely to have been cobbled together from spruced-up leftovers from those original sessions. Here they are made to sound like a wildfire tearing through a room in which a skipping record has been doomed to repeat a 2-second intro for eternity. Thuds and struck strings co-mingle at the halfway mark before falling foul of the sustained cacophony. Menace whirrs, looms, spirals, and shrieks before the ending slinks out under a sea of static.
“I Lead You Towards Glorious Times (Live)” from the original release.
Elsewhere it is business as usual. The uncompromising and relentless rhythms on album opener, “Ananga-Ranga”, are reminiscent of marauding engines or heavy artillery. There are swipes and sweeps of hellish, harsh feedback that feels like being caught in an electric storm. It slows down and a flatlining whine tries to calm things. It fails. We’re straight back into uncontrolled mayhem. It gives the impression of being stuck in the belly of a steam engine as pierced hoses whip around, scalding and searing skin. If you can’t quite tell, this is a good thing. The whole thing then coalesces into some form of industrial meltdown.
Merzbow is an artist who never rests on his laurels. His noise frantically shifts from one mind-wrenching display to the next. These aren’t the smoothing waves of rippled drones that are so often paired with noise music. This is a cut-throat struggle through flailing razor-wire. It’s the banshee shriek of abandon. As much for our times as it is timeless. It finds comfort in public flaying. Chainsaw engines rev. A bass throb at the heart of “Klo Ken Phantasie” underpins the battling static that rages up top. Sounds such as these are as open to interpretation as abstract imagery. We bring our own emotional palette to tinge the chaos with. Buried within the distortion are patterns, rhythms, even melodies. Ears attune and react to this audial Rorschach test. Merzbow dares us to reveal ourselves. This sounds like anguish.
Fittingly, James Plotkin (a name synonymous with harsh aesthetics, having featured in bands as vicious and paranoid as Khanate and O.L.D.) has taken on the remastering duties here and, perhaps the biggest surprise, is that he has opted to pump the mids, drawing attention away from the spikes and troughs of the sharp bright treble and the deep low-end rumbles. Instead by, filling out the mid-range, he has created a far more oppressive sound. Something that sits atop and bores you into the ground.
We sure as hell don’t want to find ourselves stranded in the “Slave New Desart”.
“Slave New Desart” lumbers in like a three-legged donkey that has forgotten how to apply the brakes. The trimming of the top end gives this a far darker and imposing sensibility. It no longer relies on the shock of tinnitus for its kicks. Now the concerns are deeper and more insidious. Demented cackles are peppered throughout, giving the effect of being chased through a pummelling industrial smelt by the Joker. It dies out with a riff that must have inspired Converge’s opening guitars on “The Saddest Day”. After which a washing machine then suffers a seizure – standard procedure.
I leave you with another quote from Paul Hegarty’s aforementioned essay on Japanese noise music:
“Merzbow can never get to the zenith, because Merzbow’s music is doomed to fall: it is always open to assimilation as music — or, it is not assimilable, and therefore it claims transcendence. Or, in some notional noise/music dialectic, in being on the limit, it fails to resolve, and fails to fail – because it is noise music, it cannot belong, dwell. Instead it is dwelling, part of a plateau, rhizome etc., with ‘the listener’, noise as becoming-noise, as well as becoming-music.”
Then again, Akita has publicly stated that “It’s important to know that I made Venereology while drinking lots of beer.” So, maybe it was all just an exercise in drunken excess.
Venereology Track Listing:
01. Ananga-Ranga Part 1
02. Ananga-Ranga Part 2
03. Klo Ken Phantasie
04. Last Splash
05. Slave New Desart
06. TD 3
07. Outtrack 1
08. Outtrack 2
Run Time: 79:00
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Record Label: Relapse Records