If Bent Knee and Battles teamed up to write a space opera after binging the collected works of Robert Fripp, they’d probably come up with something similar to NOICE, the new album from guitarist/composer Alexander Noice. Based in Los Angeles, Noice is something of an experimental polymath. After retrofitting his idiosyncrasies into a standard rock trio format as a member of the band Falsetto Teeth (2008-2013), he released the striking (and self-explanatory) Music Made With Voices in 2016, a further exploration of a concept made famous by artists ranging from Todd Rundgren (A Cappella) to Bjork (Medulla).
On his new self-titled project, Noice dives into all manner of strangeness with the help of a full band. While Noice himself tackles the thorny, intricate electric guitar parts, he’s assisted by Gavin Templeton (alto saxophone), Colin Burgess (bass), Andrew Lessman (drums, percussion, sampling pad), and – perhaps most strikingly – the vocals of Karina Kallas and Argenta Walther. While all the musicians are performing with jaw-dropping skill and agility, the two vocalists comprise what is arguably the most interesting aspect of the final product. The singing jolts the listener into attention with its operatic heights and utter urgency.
Noice and his band ping pong their way through a variety of genres. There’s Reich-inspired minimalism, highly disciplined math rock, jazz of both the free and fusion types, and art rock that falls somewhere between Deerhoof, St. Vincent, and Talking Heads. It can be an exhausting listen, and it’s certainly not for all tastes. But NOICE covers plenty of exciting ground and is propelled by a downright inspirational energy level.
“Affectation” kicks off the album with a bang, as Kallas and Walther sing the lyrics flawlessly and almost robotically and Noice and his band fall in line, breathlessly yet effectively keeping up. The song barrels away at a breakneck pace while guitar and bass weave their lightning-fast notes around the piece. An instrumental interlude just past the halfway mark makes room for some spectacular, jazzy soloing from Templeton. Genres and motifs are checked off like the musicians are auditioning for the world’s most eclectic band, all in less than seven minutes. The following track, the visceral “Black Darwin,” maintains that energy and pushes it further, like a sort of victory lap.
While it’s true that the energy of NOICE rarely sags, there are occasional shifts in tempo and mood that suggest a desire to branch out beyond mile-a-minute musical complexities. “Ambit” is perhaps an opportunity for the band to catch its collective breath. While the vocalists’ exhortations and Templeton’s sax squalls complement each other nicely and create a rich atmosphere, unintelligible announcements as if through some distorted public address system add a new layer. Kallas and Walther eventually begin announcing random numbers – as if trying to crack some code to which only Noice is privy – and the rest of the musicians revel in the resulting free jazz chaos. Not exactly top 40 fodder.
The tension reaches an almost delirious pitch with “Fly Inside the Wall” as the tempo ratchets up and the band thrashes around in a mosh pit soundtrack against unsettling sing-song vocal lines and brilliantly executed stop/start moments. You would think that Noice and the rest of the musicians would eventually snap and collapse from the exhaustion. But they always manage to fall back into place when you think they can’t possibly keep up the pace they set.
Elsewhere, “Breathe in the Ether” keeps things moving along familiar lines until Noice unleashes a gorgeous, until-now-uncharacteristic prog-metal guitar solo. “Dipped in Double Meaning” takes cues from art-rock at its most ambitious and experimental, as the pace shifts for occasional industrial sampling, vocal-and-guitar interplay, and a tornado of overlapping spoken word. On the gorgeous closer, “On the Fondalack”, Noice briefly switches over to some inventive funk beats and more inspired jazz workouts.
NOICE is an album that contains an almost inhuman amount of energy and dexterity. It’s a testament to both Noice’s compositional and arranging skills and the band’s seemingly endless talent and nuance that it’s not by any means a wanky, music school brag session. This is music to be enjoyed, savored, and played loudly.