While I’m clearly a strong proponent of both noise and dumb jokes, I have to admit that I almost always hate when people combine these two things. Although I hate to talk trash the only other place on the internet that regularly publishes things I write, I feel like most of the jokes The Hard Times runs about noise music fall flat for me. Headlines like “Noise Musician Unsure Which Project Files Are Complete” always come off as someone knocking down low hanging fruit. The punchline inevitably ends up being some variation of “the music sounds wrong/bad/broken,” which gets old after a while and does little justice to either noise or comedy.
But I get why headlines like these get published (and also why they probably do pretty well). The audience for The Hard Times, despite my best efforts and long-running letter writing campaign, is not exclusively people who have dedicated far too much of their lives to an incredibly niche and difficult-to-listen-to-by-design music subgenre. So if most people’s knowledge of the genre is “the music sounds wrong/bad/broken,” any joke that goes past that won’t land and the closest we get in most places is another reiteration of Ross and his keyboard.
Still, there’s plenty to rip into beyond the “this music sounds bad and liking it is pretentious” set up. And as bored as I am of most noise jokes, I deeply appreciate anyone that digs deeper into the genre to truly grasp the cultural grammar that defines this scene and musical tradition. But to get to these beautiful treasures within the modern annals of noise-centric comedy, you usually have to turn to the noise musicians who fire off jokes themselves.
Earlier this month, a noise artist who performs under the name *sigh* released an album called Pulse Demon (but it’s just my voice). On top of being one of those rare moments where the humor about noise actually lands for me, it’s actually an amazing album.
Let me tell you why.
For those unfamiliar, Pulse Demon is an album by Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) that originally dropped on Release Entertainment (a sublabel for Relapse Records) in 1996. By just about any account, it stands as a highpoint within both Merzbow’s extensive discography and noise music as a whole. With the exception of maybe Whitehouse, Merzbow is the one noise artist that people who aren’t total noise fans recognize (depending on how you define noise, but that discourse is boring and BadTM, so let’s move on) and Pulse Demon is the one record they have heard. For so many people who got into noise music in the late 90s and early 2000s, this was the record that opened the door to the genre. It wasn’t until Wolf Eyes released Burned Mind on Sub Pop eight years later that anything noise related came close to having the impact this album did.
Beyond its cultural impact, there’s another important detail about Pulse Demon worth mentioning: it’s really good. I’ve heard a lot of Merzbow albums in my day and, for the life of me, I can’t remember about 80% of them. Some of them were bad and not worth remembering, but the vast majority of Akita’s output is pretty solid. There’s a reason he earned the godfather of noise nickname and it’s not just because he was one of the first. But even if the music is usually good, remembering anything after you have heard a few dozen of the literal hundreds of albums the guy has made becomes a challenge. But Pulse Demon stands out for me as one of his best (alongside Noisembryo and Artificial Invagination, my two personal favorites). The intensity of Merzbow’s early works comes into focus among a veritable masterclass of technical prowess that defined the project. It’s harsh noise at its best: unrelenting despite the sonic diversity, as overwhelming as it is engaging.
But this is all old hat. If you wanted to read a review of Pulse Demon, you can do that in any number of places elsewhere on the internet. Today we have something more important to talk about: Pulse Demon (but it’s just my voice).
If the title did not make things painfully clear, the concept behind the album is incredibly simple: *sigh*, an artist I had never heard of before this month, tried his best to record an acapella version of Pulse Demon. Importantly, *sigh* is not some sort of virtuosic vocalist (or, at least, they don’t sound like one on the album). While artists like Charmain Lee, Andrea Pensado, or Amanda Schoofs fold both classically trained chops and otherworldly vocal experiments into the noise they make, all of the sounds on PD(bijmv) are instantly recognizable and easily reproduceable. To this end, the album sounds less like a photorealistic recreation of the work and more like a person came up with a funny idea and a whole afternoon to try and do it.
In other words: you and I and everyone else with access to a recording device and a microphone could very easily make this album. The only difference is that *sigh* took the time to make it.
Although it would be infinitely more difficult and impressive if someone could make a pitch perfect, sound-for-sound recreation of Pulse Demon with only their voice, the fact of the matter is that it would be significantly less interesting. This is partly because the idea of a cover of a noise track is inherently absurd. With music styles that use stuff like notes and rhythms and riffs, you can play a song that people recognize but put a new spin on it. You can play a metal version of a Taylor Swift song and it’s still a Taylor Swift song. But how do you play a new version of an improvised noise track? You can recreate the sounds, sure, but then why wouldn’t you just listen to the original? And if you use different sounds to try and recreate the original work, I feel like you would inherently end up with something different.
With this concept in mind, PD(bijmv) is doomed to fail. There’s no way the artist is going to come close to making Pulse Demon and, even if they did, it would be pretty forgettable. The album might garner a listen or two to marvel at the technicality but nothing more. Instead, *sigh* refuses to let a lack of vocal chops stand in their way, slapping some noise music wings onto their back with wax and flying directly into the sun, knowing full well that they’re in for a long dive into the ocean sooner rather than later.
And the choice more than pays off.
Beyond this conceptual underpinning, the album works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s just a legitimately good album. Had I not known that *sigh* was trying to recreate Pulse Demon, I still would have enjoyed the sounds on the album. Obviously the artist gets a compositional lift from Akita, but the ways that the vocal layers play into each other across each track just sound great. Nothing completely mind blowing, but still really well structured with a good attention to the textural elements of the piece.
Like I’ve talked about before in this column, this approach to music making is easily one of my favorite aspects of noise: something both incredibly simple and, at times, fundamentally ridiculous can produce the most incredible results. This album has no right to be good. It’s just an immensely silly concept that someone saw to the end. Sure, I respect the dedication to the bit, but the record doesn’t need to be good for the bit to land. But it is! It’s actually good! I really enjoyed listening to it! And that’s the beauty of noise in a nutshell. Dedicate yourself to the ridiculous, see it through to the end, and sometimes magic happens.
But this isn’t enough for *sigh*. Instead, the fact that the album is actually good clears up space to double down on the goofs. In a stroke of brilliance, the artist decided to get every single track title wrong. “Woodpecker No. 1” becomes “Headaches Bird No. One” and “Woodpecker No. 2” gets rebranded as “Like the Fist [sic] one but the Second Version of the First One.” Moreover, the physical version of the album (released on what I assume is a CDr) comes with seven bonus tracks that the person buying the album gets to choose. Options for these bonus tracks include “Have *sigh* choose a song to cover!!,” “Trumpet Trumpet,” and “Did you approve?”
I have no idea what those last two could possibly be. But I bet they are glorious.
But my favorite goof on the album comes in the middle of one track when *sigh* loudly coughs, says how hard it is to do this, and then jumps right back into recording. It’s the kind of fourth wall breaking within noise and experimental music that I love to see, a nod to the listener that breaks musical convention and shakes the veneer of the holistic musical environment. For so many musicians, the idea of “getting lost in the music” is the ultimate goal of a listening experience. So why shouldn’t noise challenge this too? Noise music has already fundamentally challenged the idea that music “needs to be beautiful” or that art “needs to be ‘enjoyable’ to be valuable.”
That last comment sounds like a joke, but I stand by it- some of the most incredible artistic experiences I have had were during noise sets where I felt a deep unease or tension the whole time (You know, the same thing that horror movies do). So why not music? And while coughing and commenting on coughing isn’t quite the same, it still forces anyone who may have gotten lost in the music to immediately get found again. I would guess that most people won’t suddenly find themselves on an alien landscape while listening to this album. But if they did, this moment breaks that illusion. All we are doing is listening to a person recording themselves making mouth sounds into a microphone. And it rules.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s one other thing that makes this album rule- Masami Akita would absolutely hate it.
I’m not usually the type that finds pissing people off funny, but when you’re punching up with a joke and the target is kind of a humorless jerk about their work, I don’t mind it. Here’s the backstory: a couple of years ago, a few super fans of Merzbow decided to start a podcast where they slowly work through Merzbow’s discography and dedicate each episode to a different album. They also invited guests on to the show (some of whom were old friends of Akita’s and noise music legends in their own right) to discuss why they loved a particular album. It was a pretty rad podcast, but when Akita heard about it he asked that they take it down because they didn’t ask permission to praise his work publicly on a routine basis.
Also, Akita got mad that they talked about Merzbow albums being covered in porn. But, if you ask me, maybe you shouldn’t cover your albums in porn if you don’t want people saying you covered your albums in porn?
And it’s this exact kind of humorless pretention that makes surface level noise jokes so easy to make. The moment you think that rubbing a spring through a distortion pedal is that goddamn important, you lose the joy that should sit at the core of every artist’s practice. So taking a swing at folks that put noise on that pedestal is occasionally helpful. And PD(bijmv) does that beautifully. Of course it’s just someone recording them making mouth sounds. Of course it’s dumb. But it’s also an amazing album that not only pokes fun at itself and the idols of the genre, but those jokes become a metacommentary in itself that replicates the best parts of noise both within the sonics of the recording and the jokes as well.
If that overly long explanation didn’t kill the joke for you, go listen. It’s hilarious. And also rad. Because, as it turns out, amazing music can also have jokes. Who knew!