Noise rock is about as difficult to define as it is for some people to listen to. Sure, you could say that it is noisy and it also rocks but those two fundamental factors also apply to AC/DC, who are hardly a noise-rock outfit. Noise rock is weirder than standard hard rock or the louder end of indie music but it doesn’t stray into identifiable heavy metal territory. In a punishing kind of way, it is arty, experimental and largely uncompromising, yet it isn’t as purely avant-garde as straight-up noise music. Its bands tend to have a DIY approach inherited from the punk and post-hardcore scenes and tend to be more concerned with creative expression than commercial success. Noise rock sometimes has an industrial edge or a bad-trippin’ brown-acid psychedelic tinge. It’s definitely slower than punk, messier than grunge and there’s often a dark humor in play. Naturally then, the following artists vary in style but are united in some vague sense by their spirit and volume.
Writing about a Butthole Surfers gig in 1987, John Peel noted how assuring he found their name, for it showed that they were not “one of those bands hoping for a fun-run on the underground scene before exploding into big pop.” Even with a name that few DJs would dare to speak, song titles such as “The Revenge Of Anus Presley” and a sound like Black Sabbath strangling rhe Grateful Dead in a haunted circus, these tripping Texan maniacs ended up signed to Capitol Records during that strange period when panic-stricken A&R men were dishing out contracts to all sorts of sonic maniacs in the deluded hope of bagging the next Nirvana (see also Babes In Toyland, the Jesus Lizard, Melvins and more). Locust Abortion Technician captures the Buttholes at their pre-major label darkest, heaviest and best. Plus, its sleeve can be useful tool for ridding your home of any unwanted coulrophobes.
Some people think Bitch Magnet is a brilliant name but personally I think it’s one of the all-time worst band names in the history of alternative music. Still, they were an undeniably great band who evolved beautifully from post-hardcore riff-churners to more delicate post-rock pioneers in four short years. Umber captures Bitch Magnet in their noise-rocking middle period, though they still find room to experiment with shifting time signatures, quiet-loud dynamics and occasional wafts of melody. Whereas 1988’s Star Booty and 1990’s Ben Hur were recorded as a trio, the Bitch Magnet of Umber were a quartet, with that additional guitar player helping to make this the beefiest of their three records. The riffs thrash, lurch and groan, the drums smash and skitter hyperactively but there are also brief moments of quieter introspection.
Surely the most prolific noise rockers of all time, Melvins have released over 20 studio albums since their formation in 1983, not to mention a whole bunch of EPs, side-projects and fruitful collaborative ventures. Their unrivaled work ethic has never fallen foul to the creative burn-out suffered by most long-running bands, with recent efforts like Hold It In standing up solidly against much of their remarkable back catalogue. It’s hard to pick a single “best” Melvins album but 1991’s slug-paced riff-fest Bullhead has got to be a contender, not least because it opens with one of the single greatest noise-rock cuts of all time, the nearly ten-minute grind-athon “Boris”. Also included are “It’s Shoved” (which would later be shamelessly ripped off by the one and only Nirvana for 1993’s “Milk It”) and a song named “Cow.” Speaking of which…
What’s the best album to own by this unruly bunch of Minneapolis degenerates? Well, it was a toss-up between this one and Cows’ previous LP, the equally stoopidly-named Cunning Stunts. Maturing (stylistically at least, if not in their sense of humor) from the scrappy punkiness of their early work, Cows really hit their hoofed stride in the early 90s with their ugly sonic sculptures of thickly distorted oddball rock. As you might expect, 1993’s Sexy Pee Story sounds decidedly dirty, debauched and deranged. As you might not expect, it includes a cover from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Listening to the Jesus Lizard makes you wish more bands were like the Jesus Lizard. Watching old footage of a half-naked David Yow throwing himself into an audience and re-emerging all bruised and bloody also makes you wish more bands were like the Jesus Lizard. Then you stumble across one of those bands who try to emulate the Jesus Lizard and you end up thinking, “well this is just a watered-down version of the Jesus Lizard, isn’t it?” (here’s looking at you, Pissed Jeans). With Yow bellowing his barely-comprehensible twisted narratives over Duane Denison’s malevolent guitar lines and the sledgehammering groove of that formidable rhythm section, 1992’s Liar has so many perks it even includes a song called “Perk.”
Unsane’s original drummer, Charlie Ondras, died of a drugs overdose within a year of the release of Unsane’s debut album so 1993’s Total Destruction was their first record to feature ex-Swans member Vinnie Signorelli. It’ a slower affair than the first LP, more relentlessly claustrophobic than Unsane’s later work and, in a strange sort of way, its repetitiveness is almost comforting. Total Destruction sounds a little bit metal, a little bit hardcore and very, very noise rock, especially in its wry bleakness. Just check out the chorus that vocalist/guitarist Chris Spencer chooses to growl over the record’s penultimate number “S.O.S.”: “It’s all the same shit, look around / It’s all the same shit coming down.”
You might see it as heresy that this list includes Shellac over Steve Albini’s earlier group Big Black but, let’s face it, Shellac are blessed with superior production, cleverer songs and, as opposed to Big Black’s industrially programmed beats, an actual human drummer in the form of the magnificently primal Todd Trainer. From opener “My Black Ass” to closing track “Il Porno Star,” Shellac’s 1994 debut album is a master class in abrasive and lyrically idiosyncratic three-piece noise rock. The band are also such advocates of the supremacy of vinyl that the CD pressing of At Action Park wasn’t released until several weeks after the LP, so all the turntable owners got to hear it first.
This band are so gloriously miserable that they refuse to see the merit in even their own misanthropic masterpieces. In an interview with Self-Titled Magazine, Harvey Milk claimed that this, their most critically-acclaimed album, only has “two or three okay songs and then nothing but bullshit filler to pad it out into a double LP.” Yet to its fans, Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men is a profound and powerful cry of existential, blue-collar despair, articulated sometimes through an exhausted whisper and at other times by a desperate scream. There are riffs here that manage to out-sludge those of Melvins, interspersed by passages of prodded piano, melancholic acoustic guitar refrains and a gurgled Leonard Cohen cover. I wouldn’t classify a single minute of it as “bullshit filler.” But what the hell do I know?
As with carbonated soft drinks, customer service and acceptable TV cop dramas, the USA tends to dominate in the field of noise rock. However, the UK has also produced its fair share of respectable noise-rock acts, including Hey Colossus, Henry Blacker, Future Of The Left, Dethscalator and That Fucking Tank. London’s Part Chimp formed at the beginning of the 2000s and provided some much-needed hairy heaviness in a climate dominated by garage throwbacks like the Strokes and all the neo-emo nonsense that sprung up in the wake of At The Drive-In’s Relationship Of Command. They earned support from John Peel and Mogwai (who gladly signed them to their Rock Action label) among others but never really got the recognition that their brand of Sonic Youth-meets-Black Sabbath boisterousness deserved. Hosting several Part Chimp classics including “War Machine,” “Punishment Ride” and “Hello Bastards,” I Am Come is one of those albums that sounds ridiculously loud even when you’ve got the amplifier volume at its lowest possible setting.
While most of the albums above come from what might be seen as noise rock’s pre-millennial “golden age”, the genre is still in rude health today. Atlanta trio Whores have been convincingly described as “the new kings of noise rock” by the co-founder of their label Brutal Panda Records, an imprint that sees vinyl as the ultimate listening format and refuses to put out CDs (a tactic Shellac would no doubt applaud). With its six tracks clocking in at under 30 minutes, you might wish to pedantically classify Clean as an “EP” or a “mini-album” perhaps. But let’s not allow such technicalities to inhibit our enjoyment of this short and pummeling smack of contemporary noise rock. In the hands of Whores, the spirit of the Jesus Lizard, Cows, Unsane and their ilk is alive and kicking, as is the overriding sense of inevitable failure inherent in the work of Harvey Milk. Whores’ own feelings of underachievement are spotlighted by songs such as “I Am Not A Goal Orientated Person” and “I Am An Amateur At Everything”. Perhaps they should try writing something a little more positive and self-confident. “WE ARE THE NEW KINGS OF NOISE ROCK,” perhaps.