ever since a bob mould show years ago left me unable to hear myself say the letter "s" right after i left the venue (this condition went away by the next morning), i've been careful about my ears at live concerts. very often the volume is too loud and the high end is like razor blades in your ears to make up for poor equipment or increasingly deafened musicians and/or audiences. thus my first act upon entering a club is always to grab a napkin to stuff in my ears. it may not offer the best protection, but it certainly takes the edge off. sometimes it takes a few tries of getting the right amount to avoid blocking out too much. but there was one show i had to see which had me proactively stuffing in as much as i could possibly fit.
i'd always wanted to see merzbow. referred to as "the godzilla of noise," masami akita has over 330 releases (and i thought jandek was prolific), most of them probably more terrifying than any sound the average person would ever wish to hear. of all the artists working in the noise field, merzbow has emerged as the undisputed king (although he owes a great debt to throbbing gristle, who broke up in 1981 but have recently reactivated sporadically). how ironic then, that his nyc date was taking place on the same night as the jandek show. hoping against hope, i bought tickets to both shows. fortunately, jandek went on first, giving me plenty of time to get over to the knitting factory and meet up with ben, bianca, and josh.
i arrived just in time to catch the end of double leopards' set. i have to say i enjoyed what little i heard. not many people can take what seems to be a single note and make it interesting. 4 people hunched over various analog instruments, tweaking, strumming, and feedbacking away in a mesmerizing multi-layered drone. after that, jim o'rourke came on with a fellow noisescape compatriot. i'd been interested to check him out after hearing of him for years as producer, remixer, and now member of sonic youth. he started out interestingly enough, but quickly built to a noise level i realized i wasn't yet prepared to take. i took a long break for dinner. having just gone through a kind of endurance test at the jandek show (waiting in line for 90+ minutes, followed by a 90+ minute show of 4-5 very slow and similar avant-jazz songs in no particular key), i thought that aspect of my night was over. i couldn't have been more wrong.
akita took the stage armed with only two mac laptops and a tiny mixer. normally this kind of setup can put me off a bit, but it's not about visuals at all with this kind of music. it is 100% about sound. you close your eyes and let yourself go, allowing yourself to be taken to whatever places the music leads you. however, the places merzbow's music leads you may not be very pleasant. when i refer to his work as music, i'm doing it in the broadest possible sense, which is to say that music can be defined as organized sound. no matter how chaotic it may seem, there is a mind at work behind what comes out of the speakers when he plays. a lot of noise artists give in entirely to the chaos, letting the instruments make the sound for them, barely affecting the output except hitting switches or screaming over the top in a very rock-n-roll fashion. merzbow takes the opposite route. he calmly positioned himself between the two laptops and went to work as though he was designing a blueprint, clearly taking care and attention to detail as he stared placidly into one monitor and then the other.
the resulting sound couldn't have been more in contrast with his demeanor. it began with a low (and i mean low) frequency drone that began to ripple and swell, moving our guts around as surely as the club's subwoofers were being punished in ways they weren't used to. suddenly a harsh mid-high blast of white noise announced the onset of his main assault. i kept my head down and eyes shut, feeling the world change around me. eventually, as the sounds got denser and more high-end, i decided to sit on the floor. by the end of the show, several others had joined me there or simply left, unable to take it. but i was determined to stick it out and see where it went. rather than creating a series of similar noise pieces, merzbow played non-stop, adding layers and differentiating them from each other with subtle processing touches and stereo imaging. it continually morphed into different kinds of hellish sound. at one point, the most musical and human of the night, he looped a sound whose source sounded like a blood-curdling scream, which changed in pitch enough to become a very disturbing melody. that's about the closest merzbow gets to pop music. at other times, he dropped depth-charge bass pulses reminiscent of some impossibly malignant strain of acid house. at that point it seemed to be building to a climax, but several sounds dropped out only to provide a lower plateau to start from to climb to even greater heights. by this point i was swaying to the undulating rhythms that only prolonged listening to this kind of thing can reveal. it's a good thing i'm not into artificially altered states, because i was already taken to levels akin to being on lsd. a dose of the real stuff while listening to this could cause permanent brain damage. i had achieved a level of bizarre calm, although i was transported to an alternate universe. at this point you realize how literally physical merzbow's music is; you feel it more than hear it, since the volume and frequencies seem to affect changes in your body. my ears were relatively protected, but it was entering directly through my skull and causing shuddering sensations not altogether unpleasant. then, with a dive down in resonance, merzbow abruptly cut the sound.
the silence was glorious and rejuvenating, although punctured immediately by howls and applause of the faithful (or perhaps insane) who'd stayed through the entire 90+ minutes. i picked myself up and almost literally staggered out into the cool night, happy i had just experienced the most intense sounds in my life. the only thing that could compare would be an equal time spent standing right next to a running jet plane exhaust. it's a toss-up whether someone willing to do that is more of a glutton for punishment than a merzbow show attendee, but i'm sure the latter is far more rewarding.
the title of this post comes from a plugin that merzbow may or may not use.