Nov 17, 2013 Music
The Kings Arms
November 16, 2013
Photo of Merzbow performing at Saint Vitus, New York, by Louis Caldarola. louiscaldarola.com
It’s 11:15 Saturday night, and an immense, roiling industrial rhythm groans and shudders through the empty streets of Newton. This relentless, oppressive groove, which sounds like some nightmarish, steam-driven engine-room of a Dickensian factory, will continue with minor variations in pitch and volume for the next 45 minutes.
Its source is within The Kings Arms, where a longhaired Japanese man toils over a bench on which is laid a variety of heavy grade electronic tools: a mess of wires, plugs, switches, mixers, oscillators. When not attending to attenuating or exacerbating the sound signals through his various dials and buttons, he performs on a homemade instrument that reveals the performer as something of a latent guitar spanker. But a guitar this is not: the central section resembles an old film canister, over which is strung heavy gauge wires, which he frenziedly rubs with what I imagine to be a clump of steel wire dish cleaner, because it sounds like metal rubbing on metal, and what happens when metal on metal is amplified and distorted
Tokyo-based Masami Akita, known professionally as Merzbow, is a legend of the noise underground. Trace the dark, pulsing soundscapes of 1970s German group Faust through to the dystopian electronics of post punk groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, and on to the industrial genre it spawned in the 1980s (Nine Inch Nails being the commercial end of this spectrum) and you get the idea. Merzbow takes the extreme noise terror implicit in the music of his forbears, eliminates melody and harmony entirely, and becomes a metaphorical black hole, swallowing up entire universes, insisting on an entirely new relationship with sound.
The writer foregoes the recommended earplugs to relish the full-spectrum sonic frequencies – a decision he later regrets, as his ears continue the next day to sing their own sharp symphony of tinnitus scree. In the moment, however, the maelstrom of astonishingly ugly feedback is awe-inspiring. Sizable chunks of the audience peel off towards the exit early in the set, while those who stick it out get over the shock of volume and intensity and learn how to absorb its cumulative power.
Akita is, improbably, a Japanese vegan, and during the last decade, his art has been in service to animal activism, many of his more than 300 albums bearing the names and dedications of animals. Akita’s Merzbow persona shows what happens when extreme art meets meaning, and takes on added gravitas as a result. No dry academic experimental exposition for this fellow: this is the sound of resistance.
Just as it’s all reaching an almost unbearable intensity, the dissonant dissident suddenly unplugs himself, leaving a very loud silence and a smattering of muted clapping. As the piped music comes on and the subdued crowd wonders what to do next, Masami Akita is still visible in his dressing room to the side of the stage, toweling the sweat off his face.