They turned it up to 11: No Age did, that is. But this was merely routine detail for the punk duo from L.A. Yes, their performance at the Bowery Ballroom throbbed with noise, but so what? That’s like saying they requested bottled water on their tour rider, or power strips for their amps. Where noise began as calculated, strident, yet flowing power-punk bursts, chaos never seemed far off. But their carnal ethos—propelled by drummer and vocalist Dean Spunt’s manic beats—managed to serenade and excite simultaneously, to the point that fans moshing uncontrollably could be indistinguishable from those dazed by guitarist Randy Randall’s diesel-fueled distortion and accented riffs. Well, not quite.
Moshing was a natural compliment to No Age’s style of thrash-rock because the audience was compelled, if not drawn, to match the energy and conviction of the group. All the more reason, when it’s only for two-and-a-half minute spurts. Randall repeatedly praised the hipster-filled audience’s enthusiasm and crowd surfing, while Spunt got up from his drum kit after each song and paced behind it like a beast stalking its prey. It was as if his drums could only remain static with him removed; otherwise they’d spontaneously combust in a cloud of Spunt-led destruction.
6 May 2008: Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
Sporting a pink, Arabic Ramones T-shirt, Spunt summed up the evening when he said, in reference to their run through “Neck Escaper”, “I rocked that shit so hard I cracked my hi-hat.” This was only four songs into a densely populated 50-minute set that spanned their entire repertoire, but drew heavily from their newest release and Sub Pop Records debut, Nouns. The differences between this record and their official, seminal release Weirdo Rippers—an assortment of tracks originally released through several indie labels on vinyl EPs—are obvious. The latter was simply an amalgamation of tracks and an exposition of sorts; the former, a fully coherent album developing their anachronistic concentrated punk sound.
One of No Age’s most distinguishable qualities is the sheer denseness of the sound the group delivers as a duo. Relying neither on electronics nor bass, the group nevertheless shapes epic noise-rock. In their density, songs like “Teen Creeps” carry an inherent Buddy Holly tone. Except that they’re rabid: on steroids, anti-depressants, or just adrenaline. Vocally, Spunt squeezes out recapitulated moans that are barely audible under his crashing cymbal or pounding snare.
“Cacophonous” has been the most common adjective used to describe No Age’s riot of noise, especially for songs such as “Boy Void”, a mix of a crowded hyperactivity and raucous vocals with, at times, a jet engine humming in the background. But their songs can’t be so easily dismissed. “Eraser”, one of the best on Nouns, has a catchy warbling guitar and tambourine opening. When Spunt’s jarring mass of drums enters, the guitars are quickly enmeshed. The song is at once gritty, textured, and harmonic, and it released a youthful exuberance within the crowd. Another, “I Wanna Sleep”, was like a blurry Johnny Greenwood symphony, only with distinguished and arpeggiating guitars, and resonated with a wash of reverb and crunchy distorted guitar.
As abruptly as their sonic stridency began, Randall announced their final song—which almost immediately gave way to an encore. “Miner” was an expansion of Randall’s sonorous feedback but also foreplay for their finale, “Everybody’s Down”. Ascending his amp, Randall launched into it with a commanding jump while Spunt crowdsurfed, his lyrics barely audible over the euphoric disorder. (Actually, after climbing back onstage, Spunt kneeled down, held out his mic, and let the fans take over.) Finally, after a final fit of drumming, Spunt knocked his drums over one by one, dismissing the cacophony as deftly as the duo had fashioned it.
Mark Twain once said, “Noise proves nothing.” He had obviously not heard No Age and their throttling distortion when he said it. If anything, Spunt and Randall have proved otherwise: that noise can be a catalyst for reaction and emotion, all the more powerful in its stripped-down sensibilities.