Never Once Reflect

They Filled the Ears with Fear: The Horror of Noise in 2015

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Prurient performs at Screamscape (YouTube)

Something went quite awry at a party I DJ’ed this past Halloween, at Montreal’s beloved Casa del Popolo. Over the course of the evening, one of the guests in attendance—some guy wearing a green plastic mask—became progressively more aggressive. During the second set, by a goofy local band called World Provider, plastic mask guy began jostling through the crowd, knocking into people around him. At the apex of legendary Toronto camp act Corpusse’s headlining performance, plastic mask guy started a minor fight at the foot of the stage with someone dressed as Kit Fisto. It was all very surreal, and I, of course, noticed along with everyone else.

As Corpusse finished up, I nonetheless started my closing set at top volume with a noisy track from a recent Shapednoise EP. Less than halfway into the song, I looked up from the turntables to see that masky badman had cleared the entire room. I immediately stopped the record. Like a tornado of one, he was in the middle of the dance floor screaming at us to fuck off, which we couldn’t hear until I pulled the plug. After threats, swinging punches in the air and an ultimately heroic intervention by Sebastian, the house sound man, green plastic mask finally exited the venue. Still, I couldn’t help but notice with horror that my Shapednoise track had been playing at the moment of such a lunatic freak-out – that the noise itself was covering up and maybe even fuelling a violent outburst.

2015 has been an especially horrific year, and that is evidenced in its noise. Sure, Shapednoise—whose 2015 collaboration with Black Rain Resident Advisor’s Holly Dicker called “a horror-techno workout”—might well be an easy target. But a wider array of notable albums this year has been shaped more broadly by noise.

Selim Bulut of Dummy instantly identifies Oneohtrix Point Never’s “heavier, noisier energy” on his 2015 album Garden of Delete. In his review of Rabit’s debut LP entitled Communion, Bob Cluness of The Quietus notes the record’s “militarised outbursts of noise”. Writing for Tiny Mix Tapes, Birkut claims that Prurient’s 2015 watermark Frozen Niagara Falls is characterized by “a crushing arsenal of noise”; Andy O’Connor at Pitchfork reassures that Dominick Fernow “brings back much of the harsh noise that faded away from his more recent works”.

Neither is this upsurge of noise limited to male artists, nor to those normally associated with a specifically noisy palette. Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson highlights Holly Herndon’s uncharacteristic use of “threatening sheets of noise” on a track called “Morning Sun” from 2015’s Platform. Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal argues that Chelsea Wolfe’s Abyss is simply a modern iteration of Folk “with added noise and ambience”. Spin magazine has gone further, naming “Mutant Noise” the trend of the year.

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Chelsea Wolfe performs at Brudenell (Photo by Al Overdrive)

In his foundational book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali asserted that the moment when noise entered the modern musical lexicon was the “essential fracture” between past and future, resounding “a world in which brutal noise was omnipresent”. But what sort of criticism is appropriate to these works today? How should we approach this new kind of noise, and what does it signal? In search of answers, let’s travel down some known dead-ends for a moment.

Should we merely describe the work? At a time when anyone with an internet connection can listen via any number of cheap, free or stolen channels, that project becomes more like directing traffic. And nobody wants to write “stabby synths” or “grinding beats” any more than anybody needs to re-read those hackneyed descriptors.

Should we look to a biography of the artist? Does it matter that Daniel Lopatin had an awkward adolescence? The notion that nature or nurture produces artists and works of a certain ilk is one fraught with peril. It simultaneously normalizes those who fit a mold and exoticizes those who do not. There are also countless dead artists about whom we will never know personal details. And yet their works persist.

Should we seek the artist’s intentions in making such a racket? Does Dominick Fernow intend to make us laugh, or instil fear, or something else? Artists’ intentions are just as often uninteresting as otherwise. Once a work is made public, the artist gives up his or her rights to have an audience experience what they intended. Again, decisively, we cannot dig up dead artists and ask after their intentions.

Should we interpret an unintentional intention into the work, or about the artist? Is there something specifically “Urban” to be read into Prurient, or “Rural” to be found in Chelsea Wolfe, or “Digital” discovered in Holly Herndon? In the immortal words of The Dude, “Yeah, well, y’know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”.

Should we build stories around works of art? Shall we construct narratives as to their place in our personal lives, or within culture at large? Is Daniel Lopatin a Rockist? An EDMist? A joker, a smoker, a midnight toker? The idea of a master narrative is suspect, and a number of minor narratives only serve to dilute the message – assuming there ever was one.


Oneohtrix Point Never performs at Villain (Photo by Maxwell Schiano)

Should we champion artists as innovators? Shall we point out that Oneohtrix Point Never was the first electronic producer to release remixable MIDI files rather than digital audio stems? Is this interesting or important? Not really. Plus, someone will always come along and argue an earlier precedent.

Should we stand to defend artists against attackers, real or imaginary? Shall we insist that Daniel Lopatin is just as worthy of canonization as, say, Trent Reznor, or Holly Herndon as Delia Derbyshire? These equations are arbitrary. And they ignore the historical specificities that have real effects in determining which kinds of cultural artifacts endure.

Should we pull the old switcheroo? Shall we argue that even though Chelsea Wolfe is a marginal, underground artist, that her new album is the one that will truly prove her importance? This can’t work when the margins are constantly being re-enfolded into the centre – at a time when Taylor Swift can top the charts with accidental noise, and when a once “indie” publication can be subsumed by Conde Nast, forever entangling unlikely bedfellows.

Should we eroticize this music? Shall we extol Rabit’s “militaristic outbursts of noise” for their textural qualities, ignoring any potential political agenda? We can’t even. Because noise resists eroticism. Unless that eroticism is intrinsically sadomasochistic.

Should we attempt to study the artist as if she or he is a patient under psychoanalysis? Shall we speculate that Dominick Fernow’s onstage antics reveal issues with intimacy? Or that Garden of Delete is a harbinger of doomsday? These diagnoses often reveal more about the analysts than their subjects. Analysis is accessory to Freud, and a 20th century conception of individuality and authorship. This logic breaks down when we realize that even the works of solo artists—perhaps especially those—are actually products of a whole equation.

An ecosystemic view is more promising. We’d do well to consider each of these variables amidst a landscape modelled by everyone from PR personnel to label management, tech bros to journalists to festival curators, and bloggers to the individual by way of social media as co-constructors of each and every work of art. And this is not to mention the role of algorithms, which probably make more noise about music than anyone these days.

Noise can be horrifying because its opposite is stillness, death. Noise signifies the ultimate horror in that its absence is even more horrible. Doubtless, the attackers who perpetrated the latest Paris atrocities at the Bataclan did so at least in part because of the dramatic shock of silencing a noisy rock show.


Justin Trudeau pays tribute to victims at the Bataclan (YouTube)

We live constantly amidst noise, making more noise against the noise of the world. Noise is volume, and the volume in our sphere has been turned way up in more ways than one. Post-modernity is at once noisier in terms of its sheer sound pressure, and also because we are never-not overwhelmed by the leviathan volume of continuously flowing information. Noise pushes out all other frequency until any resemblance of signal is lost. Noise insulates us and allows us to continue functioning in the midst of inconsistency and unpredictability. This is horrifying when we turn the noise off and hear what it’s been drowning out. Like green plastic mask guy, noise enables us to scream and still remain silent.

If it stands that we as critics mustn’t add anything superfluous to works of art, our duties now more than ever are to lay bare what is actually before us. We do this in hopes of seeing or hearing or feeling the thing in its inherent thingness, outside of any conceptual framework or value apparatus, but undoubtedly shaped ecosystemically by all of those as well. Sometimes, we must remove even our own signal to hear the noise that surrounds us for what it is. And lately, it’s a horror show.

Rather than a description or biography, interpretation or new narrative—instead of a championing or defence, analysis or location, hermeneutics or even erotics—at last we need a horrifics of art.

Ryan Alexander Diduck