Surveying the Noise: Experimental Metal and Metallic Experimentalism

[22 October 2012]

By Craig Hayes

Contributing Editor

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”
John Cage—The Future of Music: Credo (1937)

The intersection where experimental music and heavy metal meet is bursting with unrestrained, corybantic creativity. Bands are busy constructing and deconstructing marvelously mangled hybridizations, ripping appendages from multitudes of sonic anatomies. Subversive acoustics are mutilated for maximum physio/psychological impact, with discernible destinations equally as likely as fathomless improvisations. Metal’s vernacular reverberates in blurs of noise and dwells in the deepest drones, but many of the bands indulging in such activities have misshapen and unclassifiable physiques.

In 2012, a number of releases have illustrated just such innovative deformity. Albums from Locrian, Sutekh Hexen, Wreck and Reference, and William Fowler Collins, have all coalesced multiple strains of metallic and non-metallic sound into inventive forms. Filled with walls of noise, blasting feedback, bleak ambient chills or some combination thereof, the albums have provided some of the most rewarding musical journeys this year. How they got here, and what those mutations all mean, makes for a wonderfully warped tale.

Alterations, Modifications and Evolution 

A change in the musical climate in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s signaled the death of much of metal’s extraneous pomp. The genre experienced radical changes, and incorporated a raft of hitherto-untouched music styles. Metal was certainly no stranger to experimentation before that date; bands such as Voivod and Celtic Frost had prepared the ground by integrating venturesome elements into their sound, and metal was well-acquainted with alternative arrangements. Technically minded bands experimented freely with jazzy riffs and complex orchestrations, and punk and hardcore’s lo-fi, frenzied energy was routinely demonstrated.

However, whether it was due to a more open-mined music scene, or metal’s desire and need to break free from the strictures of the past (a combination of all seems likely), influences from outside its traditional spectrum began to have a profound effect on increasingly aberrant sections of the genre.
Noise’s unorthodox instrumentation jettisoned melody and structure, and its non-traditional audio techniques—and unrelenting uber-distorted feedback—made its presence felt strongly in metal. So, too, noise-rock, with its atonal pummeling and peculiar dissonant assaults. Drone, dark ambient, and industrial music rose from the underground, and the methods and attributes of the genres became readily apparent in metal. It was by no means a one-way street. Metal’s influence, which had always existed in experimental music’s idiom, was more readily acknowledged (at long last), and metal’s wrath, dexterity, and funeral-march stomp featured prominently in the accents of many bands more commonly understood as experimental than metal.

Cross-pollination, Gordian entanglements and labyrinthine mixtures are now rampant. Citing formative, off-kilter and experimental bands is common when referencing metal outfits, where the influence of an avant-garde temperament can’t be understated. Experimental music is found in their DNA and voiced in their idiosyncratic burrs, with Brian Eno, Suicide, Can, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and copious other pioneering composers, bands and albums being as essential to their bloodline as Black Sabbath.

A binding theme among all the differing amalgamations of experimental metal and metallic experimentalism is a questioning of what constitutes heaviness. Out of that inquiry, music that tests or demolishes beliefs about metal but still retains its formidableness is born. Whether it arrives with buckling riffs or hushed harmonics, that inter-genre splicing and dicing has produced some engrossingly eccentric music.

Time then to survey some of those magnificently malformed artists. 

The crestfallen beauty of noise: Locrian.

When it comes to manipulating irregular frequencies, prolific trio Locrian makes a noise like no other. Since forming in Chicago in 2005, the band has tinkered with tenebrous elements to much critical acclaim. But Territories and Crystal World from 2010, The Clearing/The Final Epoch reissue from 2012, and splits with Horseback in 2011 and Mamiffer in 2012, have gained Locrian increasing visibility. Stylistically, the band’s multi-instrumentalists—André Foisy, Terence Hannum and Steven Hess—draw from an array of eldritch reservoirs. Dark ambient, drone, black metal, Krautrock and industrial sounds all feature in Locrian’s heavily processed suites, where melodies are drowned under waves of distorting noise.

Locrian’s latest album is a self-titled collaboration with German soundscape virtuoso Christoph Heemann (H.N.A.S, Current 93, Mirror). Locrian & Christoph Heemann reveals a far gentler though no less suspenseful side to Locrian, with its unhurried bio/electro compositions featuring the pulse of technological progression colliding with organic, skin-crawling realizations. The album’s four lengthy tracks combine gentle tides of drone, hauntological instrumentation, and ripples of tranquil noise—with a melancholic mood promising grim tidings.
The minimalism of Locrian & Christoph Heemann lulls you in, but it’s anything but featureless. Dusty Americana is washed away by synth at the beginning of first track “Hecatomb”, before poignant piano takes over till its static and skip outro. “Loath the Light” delivers harsh howls (the only pronounced metal on the LP) that cut through a gloomy and stretched-out ‘70s sci-fi soundtrack. The album’s longest track, “Edgeless City”, is gracefully sparse, rising and falling diaphanously over 15 mesmeric minutes. Final track, “The Drowned Forest”, has monastic chants and darkly evocative overtones layered in an increasingly disquieting fashion—never intensifying beyond a painstaking crawl, it’s beautiful in its desolateness.

Locrian has always produced exquisite works; even the band’s blackest songs retain a breathtaking display of subtle harmonic balance, absorbing splinters of sound and nightmarish memories. In collaboration with Heemann, Locrian has crafted its most elegant songs, and eschewing its ferocious weaponry has done nothing to reduce the intensity of the material. What is most evident is that Heeman’s presence magnifies the gravitational pull between experimental metal and shadowy minimalism—amplifying the feeling that our lives are built on unstable ground, and can be shattered in a moment by tremors of misfortune.

Medusa, the devil and toxic effluvium: Sutekh Hexen.

If Locrian and Heeman’s collaboration represents the beauty in noise, then San Francisco, California’s Sutekh Hexen reveals its cruelest, Medusa-like face. Feral, and diabolically enrapturing, the band—featuring Kevin Gan Yuen and Andy Way (along with previous member, Scott Miller)—belie easy descriptors. Black metal, tape manipulations, twisted electronics and field recordings exist as a base for the band’s exploration of dominions where light is extinguished by corrosive sheets of dissonance. However, Sutekh Hexen is not shy in easing the storm, allowing glimpses of a ravaged earth and colossal amounts of putrefaction.

Sutekh Hexen has been enormously productive since forming in 2010, releasing a series of demos, EPs and full-lengths (and Kevin Gan Yuen’s excellent Circle of Eyes project deserves a mention too). Like the best noise, the band’s work provides a feverish purgatorial release—in its devilish chaos comes catharsis. In 2012 alone the band has released four albums: Larvae, Behind the Throne, Breed in Me the Darkness, and the compilation Empyräisch. All have showcased the band’s potent forcefulness.

Each release has revealed both conflicting and congruous facets of Sutekh Hexen’s personality. Aggressive and meditative elements are layered around mutable surges of noise, with skewed effects as likely to evoke the scuttling of beetles as the collapsing interior of a toxic, disused factory. The key that binds all is that Sutekh Hexen’s preternatural, pitch-black ur-drone consistently leaves one feeling naked and raw.

Two of the band’s recent efforts, Behind the Throne and Breed in Me the Darkness (a collaboration with UK-based sound artist Andrew Liles), highlight how significant the band has become in the field of blackened drone in an extremely short time. Behind the Throne offers two tracks that continue the band’s imaginative handling of distortion. “Part I” begins with hypnotic threads and a shoegazing sheen, ‘till it’s soon choked in filthy fuzz and fog accompanied by wrenched vocals scraping at your heels. The maelstrom eventually shifts into “Part II”, where hollowed out echoes are transformed into a 15-minute vortex of deleterious noise and uncompromising abrasiveness.

Breed in Me the Darkness sees Andrew Liles (noted contributor to Current 93 and Nurse With Wound) extending and reimagining two tracks from Sutekh Hexen. “We Once Walked Upon these Coals” presents Sutekh Hexen at its most austere. Stripped down to bare components of throbbing dark ambience and devilish whispers, it’s chilling in its sparsity. The remix from Liles, “We Once Walked Upon these Coals (…To Save Us from Satan’s Power mix)”, turns the song upon its head. Liles brings in piano and treated, up-front guitar, re-visualizing the song but not losing sight of the original. On “Selling Light to Lesser Gods” Sutekh Hexen dispenses barbaric riffs and distortion yanked from the abyss. Again, Liles converts the song expertly; his “Selling Light to Lesser Gods (He Is Risen mix)” is a lengthy cathedral suite, with choral voices and church organs assaulted by overwhelming demonic forces.

It’s abundantly clear from Sutekh Hexen’s work that whether drawing from a well of pernicious sound (or sounding like its dumping a body down there) the band is preset to mine cataclysmic moods. Whether it’s gazing into nothingness, or overloading on totality, Sutekh Hexen is venomous, pumping viscous tar and molten lava from its subterranean lair. As a test of your fortitude, a conduit for phraseologies dripping with corruption, and an examination of how maleficent music can get, you’ll find none finer.

Emotional beatings and egregious beats: Wreck and Reference.

It’s not all evilness out there in the noise/metal world, sometimes you find a band like Los Angeles, California-based duo Wreck and Reference—whose scarred skins of samples and percussion speak of difficult existential decisions, alienation and determinism. With no guitars in sight, Wreck and Reference manage to invoke the despair of the bleakest doom metal. The band’s latest album, No Youth, follows up the widely hailed debut Black Cassette, with the band taking further steps to present its conflicted worldview by ignoring genre restrictions. 

No Youth is filled to capacity with hostile and perversely misshapen effects. Industrial, post-punk, doom, glitch and crystalline avant-electronica all form a dermal layer around membranes both harsh and indistinct. In the best traditions of erratic experimental sounds, the icy chill of “Stage Collapse” dismantles itself, the death rock creep of “The Solstitial” oscillates though spoken word and black metal passages, and the screeched ambience of “Nausea” bursts into a chill-wave/noise workout. The sludge-ridden blackened trawl of “Cannot” transforms into a dark sermon, and the brooding churn of “Edifice of Silt” is superbly inhospitable.

The amalgamation of sounds is bold, but for all the album’s changeability it never once feels disjointed. The concurrent threads of electronics, metal, sinister samples and vocals (ranging from the torturous to the susurrus) point directly to some very uncomfortable truths. Through this multi-layered construction it’s clear Wreck and Reference has no interest in allowing its disparate influences to resemble anything easily identifiable. You may recognize dashes of gothic pop, or even find an accessible vantage point, but the band is a scintillating example of the originality found where noise, electronica and metal meet.

The alone, the afraid and the wretched: William Fowler Collins.

Aficionados of bewitching midnight drone and noise will already be aware of the work of cinematic noise-sculptor William Fowler Collins. The New Mexico resident’s superlative discography includes 2011’s The Resurrections Unseen and Malpais (a hallucinatory alliance with Gog, an artist also well worth investigating) along with 2009’s Perdition Hill Radio. All are replete with menacingly unfolding drama, and Collins’ blacker than black hymns to desiccated dreams, abandoned faith and human failure are as foreboding as they are beguiling.

Collins looks outside of musical configurations for inspiration. Geographic formations and manifestations of forsakenness—be they bodily or spiritual—serve as catalysts for the tangible becoming abstract and the corporeal becoming otherworldly. Collins is an audio shaman, and his latest album, Tenebroso, is his most enigmatically alluring. Akin to La Monte Young, Lustmord and Earth discussing the buzzing strum of Burzum around a peyote-strewn desert campfire, Tenebroso is Fowler’s least ‘metal’ album—yet its threnodies are infected with the atmospheric taint of black metal left to scorch in a wasteland.

First track “Scythe” is all disintegrating galaxies, ruptures of processed guitar, effects and white noise eruptions. “In Valleys” ebbs and flows with more gentile, pealing tones, and “What You Are Now We Used to Be” uses swells of dust storm drone to propel it forward. “Tapeta Lucida” creaks and grates as crestfallen tones rise from a fissure, followed by pulverizing noise. “What We Are Now You Will Be” decays as dusk slips into despairing night, with warped shapes materializing only to quickly evanesce. And final track “Devil” is loaded with satanic hazard as it crawls from a chasm, building to a torrent of static-ridden, ear-splitting ferocity. 

Uneasiness lurks everywhere on Tenebroso; it’s unquestionably disturbing. It exists, like so much of the darkest noise and experimental music, on a thunderous horizon, where stratospheric lightning strikes illuminate a cavern of dispirited isolation and numbing reverberations bring about agonizing remembrances. However, the album’s somber temperament does not lead one to mope. Instead, there are so many nuances to be appreciated in the weaving of textures that it’s hard to brood. Especially when the incremental layering and deluges of noise reveal a stunning compositional ability to draw so much emotional mass from such musical minimalism.

Distillers of grief, doom and suffering.

One of the fundamental knots that binds the above artists is this: the point at which things become sonically testing for the majority is merely the starting line for their multi-phonic adventures. In the case of Locrian and Christoph Heemann, and William Fowler Collins, the stripping away of flesh to reveal bleached bones and stark backdrops emphasizes a victory (of a sort) over primordial responses. Those arid scenes and skeletons of noise are laden with unease, but they are prepossessing in their barrenness—negating the desire to flee, and encouraging you to revel in the incongruous joy of apprehension. 
Wreck and Reference and Sutekh Hexen engineer dense and volatile swamps of noise, the bands building their extreme residences by overlaying, hacking, slicing, searing and freezing layers. However, in answering the question of how aural and emotional heaviness can be shaped and uttered they have opened even more fascinating lines of enquiry. Their varying answers are gruesome and unfeigned, and they dare us to seek out even more disagreeable truths.

A lot of experimental music borrows from metal’s toolbox, and vice-versa. But perhaps because there is already so much overtly ‘metal’ music to listen to, metal-edged experimental music is often misjudged by many metal fans, while experimental music fans might be put off by brutal graphics and messages. That’s not to say that the scene where they intermingle is undervalued; it may be underground by virtue of its challenging nature, but there are passionate fans and many record labels illuminating that shady junction superbly.

The roster of North Texas-based label Handmade Birds is full of artists who ignore the line between metal and noise. Employing non-traditional trappings and arrangements to assemble demanding releases, they paint shattered dreamscapes. Finding Comfort in Overwhelming Negativity, the recent release from Theologian, is a fine example of metal’s leverage being warped into a traumatic mix. The project, from Lee M. Bartow, founder of the Annihilvs Power Electronix label, is rooted in metal’s ruination, but howling noise and percussion contorts the identifiable to ensure confusion and hopelessness is followed by pain.

Uncertainty, inner-turmoil and disarray are key features of the attractiveness of Handmade Birds’ releases, and they exhibit the allure of the noise/metal/experimental nexus as a whole. The list of labels releasing such gnarled and grotesque oddities is enormous. Some, like Crucial Blast, are legendary in their dedication to challenging artistry. A recent release from Funerary Call, Fragments from the Aethyr, which uses analog and digital hardware, found and field recordings, and “ritual implements”, confirms the label’s dominance. Visionary labels such as Aurora Borealis and Utech highlight the scope of the noise/metal scene. Frank Rosaly’s Centering and Displacement (on Utech) is a demented and dysmorphic mix of percussion and electronics bent to the will of spontaneity and entropic pursuits. And Seirom’s double disc 1973 (on Aurora Borealis) is a glorious example of free-form expression filtered via black metal and noise.

All three albums highlight the breadth of the possible creative terrain. Such experimentalism’s only guide is the fierce individualism of artists paying no heed to limitations, something famed noise purveyor Dominick Fernow promotes. Fernow’s work under his Prurient and Ash Pool monikers, as well as untold others, mines drone, black metal, industrial, techno and noise. And his Hospital Productions label, with recent releases like Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement’s Black Magic Cannot Cross Water emphasizes both the array of intense sonic odysseys available in the noise/metal scenes, and their scarcity—many creations being extremely limited-run cassette, vinyl or CD-R releases.

The end (and the beginning).

The index of noise/metal/experimental artists siphoning multiple repositories and manufacturing enticing elixirs seems inexhaustible, with many releases designed and packaged with as much artistic as musical inventiveness. A huge spectrum of sonic concoctions explore wildly differing paradigms, where recalcitrant artists unleash confrontational music, and diffuse and concentrated elements are combined to render genre extremely difficult to judge. 

The pillaging of innumerable genuses makes for a neurological minefield of disorientating, transcending and/or regressive experiences. A complex collage of bio-psycho-acoustic madness that rips the fabric of time and space to shreds. Evolution continues unabated where metal meets the experimental. Those low-end, sub-bass squalls and high-end, nose-bleeding frequencies reshape metal’s bite radius into ever more intimidating dimensions.

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.

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