When listening to and discussing Merzbow, the question of whether the sound coming out of the speakers can accurately be called “music” inevitably arises. At the very least, it has been framed as such, and can at least be called art, but is Merzbow’s art music? Is packaging sound, placing a genre label on it (in this case, “noise”), and selling it as music enough to make it music?
It’s a valid question, one that can go in a number of directions. One of the common criticisms of Merzbow tends to be directly related to Masami Akita’s prolific nature; he’s released over 200 albums, including a monstrosity called Merzbox that was actually 30 CDs of reissued old material and 20 CDs that were albums never distributed to the general public, and therefore existed as “unreleased”. He is obviously not poring over his art, he’s not editing it, he’s not meticulously placing every sound for the sake of maximizing its impact. Most of what Akita does is improv—he creates noise, tapes upon tapes upon tapes of glorious noise, and he releases his favorite bits as albums. It is hard to come to terms with an artist who apparently appreciates quantity as much as quality.
As such, it’s hardly a surprise to see a 12-disc box of old-but-unheard material appear on the Merzbow release list. While Merzbient may well provide more fodder for the “more isn’t better” side of the argument, its contents make the case that, at the very least, Merzbow’s art is more nuanced than he is typically given credit for.
Without the benefit of context and with only descriptions of his musical output to date to go by, one might mistake Merzbient for a “typical” Merzbow album. Despite the title and the artwork’s implication that what we are getting is going to be something like what we know of as “ambient” music—that is, music to relax to, music that sounds peaceful, music that is utterly unobtrusive and well-suited to the background—Merzbient is a very noisy collection of pieces.
As an example: When I turned on disc 4, which consists of a single work called “RBA/Capsule Cologne Maxell”, my wife (in the other room) assumed that the refrigerator was making the sorts of sounds that it normally makes before it stops working altogether. Merzbow is now permanently known to the other inhabitants of my home as “broken refrigerator music”.
To be fair, “RBA/Capsule Cologne Maxell” is one of the noisiest pieces of the set, all clanging and scraping and static and effects that could only be described as aural pressure manipulation. “RBA” stands for “Right Brain Audile”, a phrase he used to describe his Music for Bondage Performance work, which makes sense in a roundabout way; we are allowing our ears to be abused for the sake of pleasure, a fully-willing participant in the pain invoked by listening. Of course, it may be entirely possible that so many of the tracks throughout Merzbient carry that title simply by association. Perhaps they were recorded around the same time. It’s doubtful that we’ll be offered too many concrete hints to the titles’ significance. Joining “RBA/Capsule Cologne Maxell” in the “terribly noisy” department are disc 8’s “RBA/Maxell UD II-S 90”, which sounds largely like buzzsaws cutting sheet metal underneath low flying planes, and disc 9’s “Metal4ch”, as close to a 45-minute wall of noisy static as Merzbient gets.
Placed contextually alongside the rest of his catalog, though, that description of “Metal4ch” actually offers a hint as to how Merzbient differs from the prototypical Merzbow release. Namely, it is not all walls of noise and ugly abrasion. There is a track called “Violinsolo89” (disc 11) which actually sounds, in places, like a violin. No, it’s not playing Bach, but why should we expect it to? The mere fact that it is a bowed instrument making sounds that sound like a bowed instrument, some of which actually invoke a somber mood with Middle-Eastern overtones, is enough of a surprise. A rock beat shows up in “RBA 2A”, eventually overtaken by heavily-manipulated big band noises. There are even a few stretches that could readily be identified as “ambient”, particularly the distant prepared piano passage toward the end of “RBA 8B” (disc 5), and the Dead Voices on Air-esque middle section of “Mixer/Scratch AXIA for CD” (disc 8) that offers alien record scratching drenched in delay.
In a way, Merzbient is more like the ambience we accept as part of our day-to-day lives, all mechanical rushing and whirring, random distant noise, the occasional bit of something more beautiful, amplified to ridiculous extent. It’s that ambience that we tend to blanket with something that sounds more typically like music, put to the forefront of our aural spectrum. Maybe this is how Masami Akita hears the world every day.
Regardless, placed next to the rest of his extensive discography, Merzbient offers up a side of Akita that his listeners don’t often get to hear. In that right, it’s a fascinating piece of work; for those who would profess to be his fans, it is essential.