404 Noise Festival: Difficult listening
Experimental sound showcase celebrates music without limitations
by Chad Radford
The word "noise" carries a gamut of loud and intrusive connotations. To most, it is the unwanted aural pollution that disrupts our abilities to think clearly. But in the annals of rock journalism, it is the hazy sonic aesthetic that connects the Ronettes' "wall of sound" to the grittier proto-punk dirges of the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. Stemming from the traditions of punk's subversive nature, noise has evolved into a genre of its own standing. It defies the limitations of marketable brands of music with a pure and expressive manifesto that is shared by intuition. It is a scene that exists as splintered factions of outsider musicians, bound by global, grassroots networks that embrace abstract sounds as a means of attaining artistic freedom. And it is a scene that has coalesced in and around Atlanta in a major way.
On Friday, March 16, four local noise labels – Blossoming Noise, NCC Records, Sounds From the Pocket and Robot Fishy – along with other regional labels and artists, will converge on Eyedrum for an exposition of noise in the Southeast. The aim is to strengthen Atlanta's noise community and to illustrate that there is more to the music than what the word implies.
Slouching in a corner booth cradling coffee cups in the late-night ambiance of the Majestic Diner, Travis Morgan, Graham Moore and Justin Waters are at ease. These are the respective faces behind NCC Records, Blossoming Noise and Sounds From the Pocket, and they're staring at the ceiling, looking for the perfect soundbite to capture noise in a nutshell.
For all three, the music is a means to an end combining both ideology and expression. "It's about the freedom of not placing any limitations on your music," Moore explains. Morgan finishes the thought, adding "It's what punk should have been."
Moore continues, explaining that even at the onset of punk, there were managers and marketing schemes at work, creating images and enforcing rules, planting the seeds of what would become a very contrived genre. "With noise there are no rules," he adds.
Morgan and Moore play in Black Meat, testing the limits of concept and feedback, and receivedCreative Loafing's Reader's Choice Award for Best Local Experimental Band in 2006. Waters plays guitar for Mugu Guymen, melding an overblown rock dirge with aggressive rhythms.
Noise has received a fair amount of exposure in the United States recently, with bands such as Wolf Eyes signing to Sub Pop, and Animal Collective falling into the good graces of the Pitchfork contingency. New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago have historically fostered scenes for experimental music, and Atlanta is no different. It boasts outlets, such as Eyedrum and Georgia Tech.'s 91.1 WREK-FM, that celebrate noise via long-running radio shows such as "Friction" and "Destroy All Music."
But there's still the issue of semantics. The word "noise" conjures images of disaffected smashing guitars and twisting knobs on distortion pedals to the tune of squelching feedback. The stereotype is not entirely unfounded. Spontaneity, improvisation and pure emotional release are all part of the agenda. But it is seldom without rhyme or reason.
Chris White, who performs as Magicicada, has developed an ear for the subtler aspects of sound. Onstage, he utilizes everything from traditional instruments, including keyboards and hand drums, to more unorthodox sound sources, such as rocks, boiling water and various found objects. During performances, he crawls around on his knees and occasionally wanders off stage only to find a new place to sit and create sounds. His scattered accoutrements are strewn about in a tangle of chords and effects devices. The sounds he creates linger between serene and foreboding in a cloud of abstract textures that are guided by his internal sense of rhythm.
White's music is not the result of random noodling, but of meticulous sound-sculpting to achieve a desired effect. "There is a common perception that there is no thought process behind what's being presented," White says. "I put a tremendous amount of thought into what I do. I spend time building specific sounds and a specific structure, and within that structure I improvise. I figure in my sounds and melodies and improvise around them, and this isn't an uncommon way of doing things."
Former Swans vocalist Jarboe, who was an active noise musician in Atlanta in the early '80s, will also perform. Her set will revisit one of her earliest from a WREK studio session titled "Walls Are Bleeding."
One act that stands out among the jarring aural clutter is Tree Creature, in which Robot Fishy proprietor Nathan Brown plays keyboards. Tree Creature crafts soothing drones that bubble and chirp in slow, meandering soundscapes. What qualifies it as noise is its reliance on texture rather than melody. Tree Creature is a shining example of the anything-goes policy. "When you're playing purely expressive music, sometimes it's pleasant and sometimes it's not," Brown explains.
This typifies what Morgan, Moore and Waters want to bring together with the festival. "The more exposure it gets the more people will get involved," Morgan adds. "There are people all over the place making or buying noise records. ... As we speak there's probably a kid sitting in his bedroom in Atlanta, listening to Merzbow who has no idea who we are."