1999: Kazumoto Endo - While You Were Out
Who says noise can’t be fun? Because “fun” perfectly describes the sound of Kazumoto Endo’s While You Were Out, a record that feels like a great realization of the first two decades of Japanoise as it had been growing into a large music scene. Endo’s level of creativity and enthusiasm, frankly, make a lot of similar artists sound boring in comparison. It’s no surprise that when C. Spencer Yeh released his primer of Japanoise last week he chose to end his mix with Endo’s “Itabashi Girl.” His music acts like a swan song for a very niche group of music that expanded into a far wider audience once the new millennium started.
The great example to start with is “Shinjuku Kahki Pants” which (like many of the best parts on While You Were Out) warps sampled pop music into a mountain of noise, while retaining the form of the original sources. Distorted loops will constantly change up and reveal themselves as a disco groove, or a drum fill from a rock song will dart and disappear before you know it. The most thrilling and funny (Endo’s wonderful sense of humor pops up all over this record) moment comes when all of the cacophony disappears and from the silence a little harpsichord melody dances into your ear. A smooth bass line comes with it, followed by a Japanese girl delicately laughing, and right as your thought process manages to form “what the fu…” − BAM we’re pulled back into another blast of pulsing distortion. The first time I heard it I couldn’t help but laugh and find it weirdly charming.
“Itabashi Girl” remains Endo’s most memorable and loved song, by taking that same bait and switch to a gleeful extreme with his expert sampling. Endo cuts up an obnoxious disco loop endlessly, constantly interrupting it with his dense waves of distortion, but always returning back to that same repetitive loop. The call and response grows more frantic, and as the sample keeps returning you begin to question what has more value. Endo’s sections are certainly atonal, but there’s variety, incredibly original timbres, complex rhythms, and a liberating sense of musical freedom against the same glitzy hook repeated ad nauseam. It’s a cool idea, sort of, but the conclusion of the song reveals Endo not just as another great noise artist, but a true innovator and genius of the genre. The two sections which were separated begin to overlap, and melt into each other. Eventually the disco and the noise are all the same, all equal, and as the song grows louder and denser and builds and samples of shouting girls grow in speed and volume… everything cuts out and we hear an orgasmic declaration to “MOVE YOUR BODY!” And it clicks that that’s exactly what this song, this “harsh noise,” has been making you want to do the whole time. It’s becomes not about what type of music has more value but that all music, sound really, can be ugly, stupid, beautiful, clever, funny, and touching often all at once.
It apparently took Endo some time to actually get into the noise scene. According to one bio written about him, he enjoyed it but found the recorded albums boring. Though his opinion did change eventually after hearing certain albums (thanks Merzbow!) that belief comes across when listening to While You Were Out. This record sounds like somebody who is restless, the same way artists from Charlie Parker to DJ Sprinkles’ on The Midtown 120 Blues were restless, and knew the music around them was so much more. Endo’s record, in his incredibly tiny discography (this is arguably his only studio album), shows an artist working without any boundaries and having a really fun time doing it. It remains an absolute peak for Japanese Noise.
1981: New Order - “Dreams Never End”
The first and the last LPs in New Order’s 80s catalog are funny things. They represent two very different extremes from the band that crawled out of the mopey ashes of Joy Division to become acid-house indie-dance gods. While 1989’s Technique hardly has any trace of the dark post-punk origins of the band in its sunny dance-floor vibes, their 1981 debut Movement is the sound of three already gloomy musicians coping withe the suicide of their best friend. The result is understandably bleak.
Surprisingly, though, the first track “Dreams Never End” eschew much of the plodding moroseness that dominates the album in favor of a sound much closer to the dance music the band would make in years to come. Like one other song on the album, “Doubts Even Here,” bassist Peter Hook is on vocal duty instead of the group’s usual frontman Bernard Sumner. Though “Hooky” is known for melodic basslines rather than vocal chops his delivery is still solid, if a bit detached, and the song is an interesting snapshot of what could have been. But fret not, because what Hook lacks in vocal range he more than makes up for with the most expressive bass playing of any post-punk outfit. His riffs from Joy Division songs like “Digital” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are legendary and he delivers a similarly memorable and catchy performance here. Bouncing between only two or three notes, Hook’s bass adds a strong sense of motion and movement to the track and largely invents what would become New Order’s impossible-to-stand-still-to sound. The other trademark ingredients like Stephen Morris’ machine-like drumming and Sumner’s razor guitar lines are there too, but from beginning to end this is Hook’s show and holy hell does he deliver.
Movement is a good album, don’t get me wrong, but “Dreams Never Die” outpaces the rest of the record by a mile, showing much more than any other song the band’s deep desire to evolve and the sound of what New Order would become rather than what they had already been.
2001: Zen Guerrilla - Shadows On the Sun
In the early 00’s several bands wanted to take back rock n’ roll from fusions and modern studio technology. It became a simple throwback instead of a renaissance, recreating the old looks and sounds, all done professionally. It was nice, melodic and well done but, to me, lacked the uniqueness and vividness that the original stuff had. It lacked what made it stand out in the 60s – what made people want to start the revolution in the first place.
Then again, if you turned off the radio around that time, looking for “real” rock n’ roll in terms of heat and excitement, you might have stumbled upon Zen Guerrilla’s masterful album Shadows On the Sun. This record not only brought back garage and R&B from the 60s but did so with such swagger, spark, and circumstance that you couldn’t help but getting up, shouting and dancing and popping someone in the eye. It’s the spirit of music repossessed by young musicians sounding like the pioneers did in between fistfights and sneaking a toke at the sock hop. Zen Guerrilla were not newcomers, they were on their fifth album and second for Sub Pop. They also shared their sense of desperation and fire with New Bomb Turks, but the way they played the notes and violently let their spirit loose is what gave bands like Zen their place. This makes them more than just music or – worse – product, they become a sense, a drug, an emotional state.
There’s nothing overtly original about their songs, except they are well executed, well written, and played like meteors that are falling from the sky – it seems that not only will there be no tomorrow, but we might not even see the end of today either. Others might have the radio hits and critical approval; Zen Guerrilla have the spirit of getting it on.
2011: Iceage - New Brigade
Somehow TMT managed to turn a blind eye last year on one of the most exciting/ass-kicking punk bands of 2011. Without a review or a spot on our year end list (a travesty, I know), Iceage has been painfully absent from our site and now it’s time to remedy that. Hailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, Iceage is composed of four angry dudes that are hardly out of their teens but already know their way around a mean hook and a fuzz petal or two or three. Inheriting quite a bit from the godfathers of furious sub-two-minute post-punk, Wire, their debut album New Brigade packs as much anger and ruptured eardrums into 25 minutes as any piece of music I’ve ever heard.
Most of their tunes are merely short bursts, maybe one or two riffs repeated a couple times, but a mix of scathingly raw production and an embrace of some gnarly guitar noise adds layers to otherwise stark songs. The Steve Albini-ish production leaves almost all the bands energy intact, and whatever loss of fidelity is suffered is more than made up for by how immediate and large all the instruments sound – especially the guitar and drums. “Broken Bone” opens with a guitar that is hammered out until the strings sound like they’re about to break, a typical moment of highly wound tension where the band thrives somewhere between a new level of intensity and falling apart completely.
But sheer noise wouldn’t mean shit (or a spot as my favorite of the year) without something more to grasp onto – something that worms its way into your head. Surprisingly, many of New Brigade’s memorable hooks are found in the vocals and Iceage’s choruses can be downright anthemic. “You’re Blessed,” “White Rune,” and more or less all their songs forgo screams for whats best described as a deep below, carrying as much anger as pure shouts would but with loads more expression and melody. With these guys and Lower releasing debuts from Denmark in the past year, the post-punk scene has gotten a bit angrier and much much more exciting.
1992: Current 93 - Thunder Perfect Mind
When I was a young kid in Catholic school, everybody knew if you were ever bored and looking for a good laugh you could always grab your Bible and flip to the back to find the weird-as-shit Book of Revelation. It was pretty entertaining for a young atheist, reading this book that has informed centuries of decisions and beliefs. I’ve gotten older though and really grown to appreciate the mythology found there. Try to put yourself in the time when this stuff was written. It is genuinely frightening, yet beautifully imaginative. They are such aesthetically conflicted stories entrenched in both sides of a spectrum; a sense of horror and rapturous bliss pervade all the characters regardless of whether they are good or evil. God does monstrously horrible things, while Satan is described as the most beautiful of all the angels. It envisions the End Times, the purging of the world, and one of the earliest definitions of catharsis.
That dichotomy is at the heart of what many call David Tibet’s best album. Thunder Perfect Mind sits at the top of Tibet’s catalogue despite, or perhaps because of, that conflicting nature that hearkens all the way back to the Bible. The gorgeous medieval sounding folk melodies always carry a creeping sense of ancient doom. It explains how Tibet can open his album with a song of tremendous beauty and faith even though it focuses primarily on Satan. The depth and complexity of his writing feels authentic and true to Gnostic tradition while countless Christian pop acts sound shallow and redundant in (an admittedly inappropriate) comparison.
Current 93 albums often grow from a seed of inspiration. It’s usually a theme, or even just a phrase, Tibet explained in a 2006 interview with Brandon Sosuy. The title “Thunder Perfect Mind” acts as that seed. A Gnostic poem filled with paradoxical statements that define the ancient Christian spirit at the heart of Tibet’s songwriting. The recitation and heavenly instrumental that make up the two sections of the title track make Tibet’s message clear even long after he’s implied it through the song cycle in the first of two LPs that make up the album.
Steve Stapleton (in addition to creating his own Thunder Perfect Mind the same year under his Nurse with Wound moniker) co-produced the album and added a wonderful assortment of studio touches under Tibet without ever overpowering him. The liner notes credit Stapleton with providing “corrugations,” or folds and ridges, and while that sounds abstract there’s not a better way to describe his contributions; his unsettling industrial touches and electronically manipulated vocals that sound like demonic children, and many of the otherwise traditional moments on the album. The centerpiece of TPM, “The Stars are all Dead Now,” remains one of Current 93’s most ambitious moments. After beginning with a Caretaker-esque intro and a looping foundation singing “Jesus heals with love,” Tibet spends the next nine minutes re-imagining the apocalypse through the spirit of William Blake. His terrifying chanting of “DEAD DEAD DEAD DEAD” punctuates everything from Jerusalem to God to himself (the late John Balance ironically is one of the only characters in the song spared), yet he sounds downright ecstatic in his tone. The dirge-like beauty of the song is juxtaposed against Stapleton’s best manipulations of sound on the record. As Tibet shows the world ending the song cracks and breaks apart in a climax the whole record has been leading up to.
Thunder Perfect Mind digs deeper than most Current 93 albums. Though it sounds ancient in many of the sounds and obscure references Tibet makes, the bits of electronic trickery that Stapleton includes make it intensely Modernist. It brings to mind works like Eliot’s “Waste Land” and Ginsbreg’s “Howl” while maintaining Tibet’s mystic doom to create an album that doesn’t lean on its inspirations. I still remember being that kid snickering at the dragons, and 666s, and seas of blood found in the conclusion of the Bible, yet when I heard Thunder Perfect Mind all those years ago it shook me to the core; it still does.
1966: Jackie Wilson and LaVern Baker - “Think Twice (X-Rated Version)”
I recently saw the dirtiest grandfather of rap, Blowfly. Brian McKnight’s been releasing songs for porn websites. R. Kelly has a new album coming out. Sex jams have been on my mind. After hearing the (awful and sad) Brian McKnight pussy-eating ode, I kept thinking back to this Jackie Wilson/LaVern Baker remix that never saw release.
The original (also called “Think Twice”) was a minor hit. When you think long and hard about the type of content that was considered explicit in the mid-60’s (especially within the context of soul music), this song has got to be one of the dirtiest songs recorded during that whole decade. For that alone, I really appreciate its value.
I also think there’s something to be enjoyed in the fact that Jackie Wilson’s higher-pitched quieter voice is dwarfed by LaVern Baker’s deep and booming voice. It changes the dynamic of this outright fun and dirty gospel-soul song. It’s odd to me how so many female soul singers really avoided the notion of sexuality, especially when they had the pipes to really send their message with power and grace.
“Now listen to me honey/ I give you all the reefer/ All the cocaine/ And you still fucked up” might be one of the first instances in music where a woman calls out a man for being bad at sex, right? I mean it’s a common enough thing to bring up in our world today, but it certainly wasn’t something that was widely accepted in Jackie and LaVern’s culture.
Anyway, I’m going to try suffering through the Usher album and then wind up listening to R. Kelly remixes. Please keep this song on a playlist for when you need a soul song that’s as fun as all the others but aggressively filthy.