Expanding your music taste is a slow process. Genres take time to be understood and make sense to a listener-a bit like a rather pretentious piece of modern art. I’ve experienced this myself- in the past I could appreciate experimental music, but I kept it at arm’s reach as it sounded too off-kilter to fully enjoy.
Nowadays, I can listen to the likes of JPEGMAFIA, Death Grips, and SOPHIE like it’s bubblegum pop music. Despite the chaos these artists inject into their sound, there’s always an element of familiarity that allows me to indulge in the energy of what they create.
But there’s one genre that I have not dared to engage with. I’ve dipped my toe in the water from time to time, but this isn’t water, this is like a large vat of acid that somehow also has piranhas in it.
If you haven’t heard of the harsh noise genre I don’t blame you. It is one of the most niche chasms of music that is rarely talked about in mainstream media. To summarise the sound of the harsh noise genre, think about why it’s called ‘noise’.
Many artists in the field ignore the rules of rhythm, beat, melody, or anything that defines the notion of music, instead they create a wall of distorted sound which takes abrasiveness and mutilates it into something much more tortured.
The genre’s origins firstly came from the Italian futurist movement in the 1910s (major fascists, I know, but created some cool stuff). Luigi Russolo saw noise as a replacement to melody, which he found to be confining, he created a number of noise-generating devices called ‘intonarumori’ and assembled a noise orchestra to perform with them.
‘Noise’ music would then be experimented with in the art world by the likes of John Cage and the Bauhaus movement over the earlier parts of the 20th century. The rudiments of harsh noise were also used on tracks by The Beatles, Suicide, and, The Velvet Underground, labelled by many as ‘noise rock’.
Harsh noise is widely agreed to have been developed in Japan during the 1980s, and it continues to be the hub of the genre to this day. The most famous artists of the genre; Merzbow, Masonna, Government Alpha, all sprouted from the Japanese movement. These are the artists that closest represent harsh noise in its purest form.
The wall of distortion, screams and chaos is something I can appreciate, but my ears continue to reject.
I can’t say I react positively to all the sounds, but my interest has certainly not waned. I wanted to understand the fan base and how people can listen to full albums of harsh noise and not fall into insanity.
So, I took to the music community of Instagram and asked for fans of the genre to discuss and explain their enjoyment of it.
Many agree that harsh noise is something that’s impossible to just jump into, it takes hours of listening to acclimatise to the hellish sounds. I had multiple fans explaining to me how they eventually found the abrasiveness to actually be calming, a bit like the audible version of a punching bag, or screaming into a pillow, the hyper-abrasiveness feels like a release of frustration for a lot of these people.
One fan in particular explained to me how harsh noise allows them to appreciate their environment more, explaining how there was “a new beauty in the silence” after they finish noise projects. Some others revel in the chaos, finding interest in how far the boundaries of ‘music’ can be pushed.
Another subject that commonly appeared was the most famous artist in the genre, Merzbow. Normally within genres of music, the biggest artists are the most accessible. This is far from the case with Merzbow, who pushes harsh noise to its… well… harshest.
You can compare this occurrence to other mediums of entertainment. Let’s say you want a movie with a gory shock-factor, you don’t go for the PG/13 ‘no blood and cut away from the violence’ films or even the 15-rated shoot-em ups.
No, you go for the Saw series, or god forbid, The Human Centipede. If a category is already brutal, then we’re always drawn to the worst of what that category has to offer.
One person who responded actually made harsh noise music himself, and gave me first- hand insight on how such sounds of distortion are created. One of the most common instruments for creating harsh noise is a pedal chain. Pedals are traditionally used with electric guitars, allowing the player to easily modify their instrument’s sound whilst recording or playing live.
Connecting a chain of pedals together through leads and wiring creates an increasingly distorted feedback, which can be modified in the same way one can modify a guitar’s sound. Guitars themselves can be used alongside this, often distorted or echoed beyond recognition. Another common feature is the artist’s voice, where barbaric screams, wails and growls can become the main contributor to a track.
If you’re interested in experiencing the furthest music has ever been pushed, I was told the bands Dreamcrusher or Yellow Swans are good starting points, as their music does contain some semblance of a rhythm. I personally found the latter to have some well-textured and hypnotic sounds.
Am I actually becoming accustomed to this genre now?
This is certainly the most terrifying, chaotic, and for some people calming, genre in all of music. It may not yet be for me, or probably you either, but it is admittedly fascinating. Enter at your own peril, with the volume probably turned down a bit.