beyond ‘harsh’: as loud as possible magazine and the art of reviewing noise

June 13, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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As Loud As Possible: The Noise Culture Magazine

What is the point of music reviews, eh?  That may seem like a surprising question for me to ask, given that I spend so much time reading and writing the bloody things, yet I remain ambivalent.  Reviews seem to me to serve two main purposes: the first is to convey the author’s impression of the music in question, the second being to inform the reader as to what it sounds like in order to convince them to buy it, or to save their money for something else.  There is a tension, a kind of quantity theory, at work between these reasons to be: the more impressionistic the more interesting but the less informative, the more informative the less interesting but the more useful.

For example, imagine a review that reads in its entirety: “this lot sound like Gang of Four, their album is not as good as Entertainment but it is better than Gang of Four’s later stuff.”  Succinct, useful, informative: you know exactly where you stand immediately and you are either reaching for your wallet or turning the page.  Not a very gratifying read though is it?  Hardly swells the breast with enthusiasm.  Worse, in the era of streaming this kind of review is almost totally unnecessary because within a few seconds of learning of the record’s existence you can visit Amazon or emusic or myspace or grooveshark or wherever and actually hear it for yourself.  I often wonder why, say, Boomkat put so much effort into the blurbs written to differentiate between new releases when those blurbs also contain links to the music itself.  Why not just write “hey, here are links to the tracks we dig this week” and leave it at that?

This issue increases in severity when reviews go the other way and are entirely impressionistic.  “Yes, yes, all very poetic,” you might think as you read some ponce going on about castles and shipwrecks and rhododendron bushes, “but, given the fact that I can actually hear this with no more effort than a few clicks of the mouse, this wittering is entirely self-indulgent”.  It’s like someone standing next to you at the art gallery and going on and on about the picture you are looking at.  You would justified in shouting: “I KNOW, MAN, SHUT UP!  I’M STANDING RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT TOO!” before being bundled out by security.  Here is the hidden, shameful third purpose for the existence of reviews: so that the reviewer can drown out the music with the sound of his or her own voice.

However, and this is going to sound incredibly self-serving, there is an area where reviewing music remains a noble and worthwhile occupation: in the experimental music underground!  (Hah, do you see what I did there?  I validated my own critical endeavours!)  The best reviewers will strike a balance between information and impression and in so doing bring interesting stuff to your attention in an interesting way.  Also, their efforts will not be immediately nullified by technology because the stuff in question will not be widely available or only available in unstreamable formats.  The Culver back catalogue, for example, a monumental body of work, is almost entirely absent from the internet due to the majority of it being housed on cassette tape.

So who manages this?  Well, Mark Wharton over at Idwal Fisher springs to mind immediately.  He writes about difficult music with humour and invention combining a fan’s eye for detail and context with a wry Yorkshire scepticism.  I recommend regular visits.  But what about in print?  What if you need a 166 page, perfect bound, A4 sized magazine featuring a terrifying picture of that bloke from Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock on the cover to scare your office colleagues with at lunchtime?  Well, fret not because now your need can be fulfilled…

I realise that in punting As Loud As Possible magazine I am way behind the times (the aforementioned Idwal Fisher featured a review in November 2010) but, hey, I didn’t get it until recently and it has taken me weeks of dipping in and out to read even most of it.  I’ll let co-editor Chris Sienko explain what is going on here:

We created this magazine to solve a problem: to offer a contrast to the fumbling coverage of noise and experimental music found in glossy music magazines.  While there’s a fair amount of lip service given to ‘noise’ and its various sub-genres in the popular press, the reporters, though earnest in their desire to explain what’s happening to their ears, seldom have a deep or wide background in noise listening or the ability to contextualize one record in relation to another.  To them, all Merzbow records sound more or less the same and are for the same use…

…or to put it in one simple statement of intent:

There are differences between good and bad noise, and there are ways to explain this in print.

Both quotes from Chris’s opening editorial.  To the layperson noise culture must appear utterly impenetrable.  Even those sympathetic to other areas of experimental music must at times be tempted to chuck it all in the same squirming sack and label it with the single word: ‘harsh’.  What Chris, co-editor Steve Underwood and their numerous contributors have attempted to do is get beyond this and instead provide a deep context and a rich vocabulary for the description of noise.  In forging these tools for differentiation Steve and Chris have allowed a little light into what can be a dark, dark business.  Check out the following snippets chosen literally at random from the extensive review pages:

The title track is a fiery hit of robust distortion, the occasional low-end rupture set amidst slashing doses of feedback and hissing vocals smeared across the end result

…or:

Upon immersion, you’re immediately caked by static washes, wretched screams, and total junk metal savagery…

…and from the same review, a line that made me laugh out loud:

There is nothing that keeps this archival masterpiece from being an absolute necessity if you have even the slightest interest in depraved noise filth.

Well, who hasn’t, eh?  But enough of my flippancy.  As well as the review section there are equally comprehensive interviews and articles featuring the like of The Haters, Putrifier, Broken Flag, cover stars Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock and, as they say, much, much more.  This has weeks of use as a bedside companion, at least until your freaked out partner insists you keep it on the shelf.

In summary then: As Loud As Possible is a massive success.  It is absolutely chock full of the best type of music journalism – knowledgeable and informative yet enthused and entertaining.  I can pay it the highest compliment available to music reviewing: it made me want to hear the music in question.  And, when that music is described as depraved noise filth, that gives you an idea of the masterclass we are dealing with here…

To buy your copy visit the website.

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