Friday, 10 June 2011

10 Noise/Drone Greats

To begin with, this isn't the most comprehensive or "pure" list of the genres of noise or drone music, and I'm aware that elements of both can be traced back to classical and pre-twentieth century origins, which I would know next to nothing about. But here by naming ten disparate instances where music of these kinds can be found I will attempt to arrive at a definition for both noise and drone music, and come up with a comprehensive introduction to the genres.

John Cage - Experiments with "chance" (1950's, 60's)
By the time the words "noise" and "drone" were being used as descriptors of music in the early 1980's, composers such as La Monte Young and John Cage had already released some of their greatest works and experiments in early forms of the genres some twenty years previous. Cage, perhaps more renowned these days for his "silent piece", 1952's "4'33"", was one of the most forward-thinking composers of his time, relying less on the rigid score and incorporating any unexpected found sound into the piece. For Cage, anything that was a sound was music, be it prepared piano, radio static, running water, his audience's laughter, or indeed apparent silence. Cage has often been cited as an influence on later noise musicians, as his redefinition of music reverberated throughout the twentieth century, and is still a major cornerstone for music study today. Below check out the grainy clip of Cage performing "Water Walk" on the show I've Got a Secret, from 1960.

The Beatles - "Revolution 9" (from The Beatles (The White Album), 1968)
Just in case further proof was necessary that the Beatles were the defining band of their generation (or quite possibly ever) they can also be credited for being one of he first bands to embrace and experiment with the experiments of Cage, Young,, and use their popularity to freak out a whole generation of listeners. Although the Fab Four had previously toyed with tape loops ("Tomorrow Never Knows"), sustained chords and "orchestrated chaos" ("A Day in the Life"), nothing is quite as "out there" as The White Album's "Revolution 9", the band's longest, most challenging and "scariest" combined effort. Well by "combined" I refer to the credits, but "Revolution 9" was specifically John Lennon's brainchild, fresh from recording Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins with Yoko Ono, herself an acquaintance of Cage and Young. The responses were, as one might expect, mixed: Paul McCartney wished to have no association with it. Genius or madness, it's one of the ballsiest statements of the Beatles career.

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat (1968)
The second Velvet Underground album, though not quite as influential as the first, is notable for being one of the harshest, challenging listens in rock music's canon. From the first few seconds of its opening title track it promises a 40 minute punishment through the realms of the avant garde, and the origins of punk and indeed noise. Singer Lou Reed picks up where the previous album The Velvet Underground & Nico left off in  pursuing themes of eroticism, violence, murder, urban mysticism and debauchery, accumulating in the chaotic finisher "Sister Ray", a 17 minute improv so distorted it would make today's shitgaze musicians cringe with excitement. It's no wonder that the band's subsequent self-titled album would be considerably cleaner and accessible. Lou Reed would also release an album in 1975, Metal Machine Music, a composition of pure feedback, being one of the most infamous rock 'n' roll career decisions in history.

Iggy and the Stooges - Raw Power Iggy Pop Mix (1996, original release 1973)
Not a noise/drone record in itself per se, but a definite precedent to noise rock, as well as virtually every punk album, the Stooges' Raw Power is infamous not only for it's gargantuan influence on every late 70's musical fringe movement, but also for being one of the loudest albums ever. Particularly the 1996 Iggy remix: the original album was produced and mixed by David Bowie, however due to limitations on label Columbia Records' part he was given only a day to do so. Stooges frontman Iggy Pop was asked by the label to remix the album for it's 1996 reissue, and he used the opportunity to push the boundaries of volume and gain to extremities, creating the true punk masterpiece he'd intended. He spoke of it in the liner notes as being "a very violent mix", and it's live feel was made to match the destruction of the band's legendary live shows. Opinion is still divided whether which is the preferable or definitive record, even amongst members of the band. Through the other end of punk came several other movements, one of which was New York's No Wave scene, one of the few to match the fury of the Stooges' protopunk, and one which later evolved into noise rock.

The Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy (1985)
On UK shores noise was finding it's way into other post-punk movements. Glsagow's The Jesus and Mary Chain's trademark sound borrowed the early noise efforts of the Velvet Underground, and used them to push the melodies of 60's girl bands and the dreamy textures of another Scottish band The Cocteau Twins. The original lineup consisted of brothers Jim and William Reid and Bobby Gillespie, who later left to front his own band, Primal Scream. They immediately became a cult band, in part thanks to their early single "Upside Down", and their debut album Psychocandy is regarded by many to be a classic, cited as a precursor to shoegaze, Britpop, and later British indie.

Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation (1988)
Sonic Youth came from NYC's underground music scene; guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were members of No Wave composer Glenn Branca's guitar ensemble. The band's wide range of influences, including the alternative tunings of Joni Mitchell and admiration for avant garde composers, incorporated into their No Wave and post-punk beginnings (as well as the roots of those genres) to become one of the most respected and influential of their day. Although the band released many great records in their early years (Evol, Sister), Daydream Nation was a game-changer, a true underground artistic statement that has since become one of the most celebrated records of the 80's. A real triumph for noise and drone, as the record ranges from blasts of feedback to long, rolling waves of distortion, backed by otherworldly lyrics and memorable punk melodies.

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991)
My Bloody Valentine's first (second?) album, Isn't Anything, was an entirely new breed of guitar-based indie music. Although the "You Made Me Realise" single marked a change in the band's style from straightforward, twee indie-pop, few would have predicted the outcome of their first studio LP. It became perhaps the first of a genre later known as shoegaze, a highly-amplified and distorted version of Phil Spector's "wall of sound", with a more "alternative" feel, owing to influences from Sonic Youth to Dinosaur Jr.. As many British indie bands decided to release shoegaze records of their own, it was up to MBV to reassert themselves as originators of the movement. After a lot of time, effort and expense a sequel was released in 1991. Loveless was more than anyone could hope for, and is frequently described as one of the greatest albums of the 90's, so much so that the band have yet to release a follow up in the 20 years that have followed. Probably because they've realised they're unlikely to beat it.

Boredoms - Super æ (1998)
Boredoms are nuts. Fronted by enigmatic frontman Yamantaka Eye, the Japanese noisemakers began releasing recordings from the mid 80's, and sound like no other band before or since. Eye's screams sound as if they're propelling the whole chaotic wave of sound he and the rest of the band produce, showing some sort of great yet incoherent virtuosity buried underneath the vastly eccentric and nihilistic haze. Super æ showed Boredoms' change in attitude from their zanier early albums, working more towards a glorified, powerful vision of their own. Yet this vision was vibrant, energetic and intense, as in through the destruction something new and positive could be made, a marked difference from many of their contemporaries, stepping out of the shadows of grunge.

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Wilco's fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was mixed by famed noise producer Jim O'Rourke. Jeff Tweedy's beloved alt-country outfit had started to experiment with darker lyrical themes on previous album Summerteeth, and presumably Tweedy was interested in matching these themes with a noisier aesthetic. As recording sessions progressed it became evident that the band's label Reprise Records (owned by Warner Bros. records) were dissatisfied with the change in direction; as a result Wilco bought the album's master tapes and left, finishing YHF and releasing it on Nonesuch Records. The finished result is a real triumph: a post-9/11 indie success story, and an exercise in how far Wilco could push their traditional sound into another, in the Kid A template set out only shortly beforehand. A demonstration of the effectiveness of noise in a seemingly unconnected genre, and how this merging of sounds became a trend throughout the 00's.

The future of noise and drone (2000-
Yeah, perhaps too easy a way to finish off the list. But to choose one band to represent 21st Century noise and drone would be a real injustice, as the influence they've had upon independent music in particular is incalculable. The last couple of years alone represent decades of change in the diversity and experimentalism of these types of music. No Age combine more traditional noise rock with power pop song structures. Sleigh Bells have taken it to bratty dance-punk. Deerhunter have recently done the opposite, subverting their former noise sound into "ambient punk". The electronic soundscapes of Oneohtrix Point Never, as well as Daniel Lopatin's work with Emeralds rely on synthetic drones, as do Fuck Buttons; whereas drone metal band Sunn O))) create terrifying, very "real" drones using just guitars and huge stacks of amplifiers. Colin Stetson has found a way of exploring noise using traditional instrumentation, namely saxophones, purely by being inventive and skillful. The vast number of lo-fi recordings over the last few years can be directly attributed to noise rock. And one of the biggest indie rock releases of recent times, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion may have been "too mainstream" for some, still was miles more experimental than anything it shared its chart position with that year.

Attitudes too have changed towards noise as its spread has increased, no longer perceived as the refuge of the oddball music fan and the masochist as they once were. The examples listed are sufficient reason in themselves why. They are the results of the innovations and inventiveness of the minds who perceived and enlightened new ways of composing, recording and performing music. In turn new musicians are likely to innovate and produce strange, harsh, dissonant and unconventional sounds in the future in new ways. Which is proof, if ever needed, that today's music scene is as great as it has always been.

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