15 bands who are crucial to the history of noise music
Starring Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Jesus And Mary Chain and moreApril 6, 2021
When it initially blasted into the world from New York’s Lower East Side almost concurrently with punk in 1977, it was dubbed no wave. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau referred to it as “skronk,” an onomatopoeia based around the general guitar sound. He uncharitably dubbed its ’80s practitioners “pigfucker” bands. This writer’s personal name for this sound in the day was “migraine music.” But most people call the style what it is: noise.
Sonically, it’s what happens when you are unkind to an electric guitar at ear-splitting volume. Maybe you bang some unusual percussion together as well—pots, pans, car mufflers, etc. Basically, you have no respect for the 12-note scale, melody, rhythm and all those other musical niceties. You may have no skill whatsoever or all the chops of the most studied jazzhead. You may love rock ’n’ roll, or perhaps you took punk’s promise to “destroy rock ’n’ roll/tradition” at face value and aim to deliver. You may create the most frightening racket ever or the most unusually melodious overtones. Whatever the case, this isn’t music as most would define it.
Of course, like any artform, noise has its roots or precedents: avant-garde composer John Cage’s symphonies for phonograph cartridges, pipe cleaners, toothpicks and suchlike; the Velvet Underground at their most fuzzed-out and atonal, such as “Sister Ray” and the majority of second LP, White Light/White Heat; the entirety of Yoko Ono’s career; Detroit protopunk’s most free jazz-inspired, dissonant blasts, such as MC5’s “Black To Comm” or the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues”; Lou Reed’s 1975 Metal Machine Music, a two-record chronicle of what happens when you lean several guitars against as many amps, turn on different effects boxes, switch on a tape machine and walk out of the room for an hour; the brutal guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham; even the proto-ambient record The Sounds Of The Junk Yard, featuring such soothing toe-tappers as “Acetylene Torch…” and “Steel Saw Cutting…” This must have been a big hit on Einsturzende Neubauten’s hi-fi at their rent parties.
Of course, noise had its crossover with the concurrently rising industrial scene, as well as post-punk’s most abrasive elements. And like punk and post-punk, it’s still thriving, even if it’s seemingly retreated underground, rebuilding its strength before assaulting the culture and our eardrums anew. Without further adieu, Alternative Press presents its hand-picked selection of noise’s 15 brightest lights, from its beginnings to its present.
Best heard on: Retrovirus
Since discharging wounded banshee shrieks from her throat and a Fender guitar with Teenage Jesus And The Jerks in 1977, Lydia Lunch informs noise as Iggy Pop informs punk. It all essentially starts with her. She’s refined her assault—musical and literary—in countless forms since. Including 8 Eyed Spy’s atonal swamp rock, her Queen Of Siam solo album’s dangerous Lounge Lizardisms and her guest appearance on Sonic Youth’s post-Stooges Manson family hagiographical single “Death Valley ‘69.” The last few years, she’s performed a “greatest hits” set backed by Retrovirus’ metallic racket—a beautifully effective update of her dissonant spirit.
Best heard on: The Taste Of TG
Like Lunch and other NYC no wavers, British industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle saw some promise in early punk but were ultimately disappointed that it all boiled down to more rock ’n’ roll. They evolved from performance-art troupe COUM Transmissions, fronted by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti. Live, they confronted audiences with ugly imagery such as Nazi/fascist symbolism and pornography, as they warped electronics and tape samples through every distortion device they could find, set to tribal beats. Atop, P-Orridge harangued listeners to abandon conventional thought processes, mores and traditions and encouraged them to think for themselves.
Best heard on: Album – Generic Flipper
Four San Francisco punk vets, Flipper assembled in 1979 in reaction to the scene’s increasing orthodoxy. As hardcore urged music to get louder and faster, Flipper opted to crank the volume knobs to 12 and break them off. Then they dropped tempos to the pace of molasses poured in the Antarctic. Guitarist Ted Falconi reduced his attack to a more distorted howl than your average punk six-stringer’s. Performances were unpredictable.Their abominable din surely paved grunge’s path, especially the slowcore blast of the Melvins.
Best heard on: Kollaps
Einstürzende Neubauten, roughly translated, is German for “collapsing new buildings.” These West Berliners were a lotta fun back in the ’80s, banging around on car doors and steel pipes with hammers, maybe applying a grinder or a chainsaw to sheet metal. Meanwhile, Blixa Bargeld looked like Sid Vicious’ corpse writhing around in some crazy S&M outfit, screaming abuse in German and occasionally hitting his electric guitar. The cumulative effect was akin to a DJ spinning both The Sounds Of The Junk Yard and John Cage’s Variations II simultaneously. They’re still around, though playing a more ambient, soothing din in their junkyard.
Best heard on: Bad Moon Rising
Meet noise’s MC5 or New York Dolls. With their overamplified junk shop guitars strung with piano wire or whatever they could afford, tuned to anything but A440, banged with screwdrivers or hammers, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo could raise some truly hideous tonalities. Their innovation was pairing this rethink of rock guitar with the powerhouse rhythm section of Kim Gordon on bass and drummer Bob Bert, replaced from 1985 onward by Steve Shelley. When applied to explorations into standard pop song construction, it created a shockingly new form of rock that could roar violently or chime beautifully. From time to time, as in their cover of the Carpenters’ “Superstar,” it happened within the same song. But at their best, Sonic Youth were the aural equivalent of the “Teen Age Riot” video above: Like every great punk record in history played at once, as someone leans a guitar against an amp, letting it scream feedback before smashing it. Then someone plays a record of Allen Ginsberg reciting his poetry on top.
Best heard on: Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac
These acid-drenched Texans were the freakiest, most fearsome rolling roadshow of the mid-’80s. Butthole Surfers were a total assault on the mind: Drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa bashing their kits standing up; Paul Leary pulling queasy chords outta his Stratocaster; and psychotic 6’5” frontman Gibby Haynes, the son of Dallas kids’ show host Mr. Peppermint, shaking clothes pins from his hair and yelling abuse, maybe even firing shotguns above your head. Meanwhile, strobe lights flashed, and as autopsy and traffic accident films were projected over this insanity, the band raised a racket akin to hardcore punk 45s played backward at 16 RPM. It was pretty fucking cool.
Best heard on: Atomizer
The brainchild of future ’90s recording genius (Nirvana, Pixies) Steve Albini, everything about Chicago’s Big Black was designed to be an assault. For starters, there’s their drummer: a Roland TR-606, run through a clapped-out PA system pushed to its limits, so the beat was as abrasively distorted as Albini and Santiago Durango’s guitars. Or Dave Riley’s bass, for that matter. As all this sonic information drilled through your skull and pounded your frontal lobe, Albini hollered the ugliest tales he could find, such as “Cables” chronicling the slaughter of cows in a Midwestern abattoir. Industrial punk at its finest.
The Jesus And Mary Chain
Best heard on: Psychocandy
Four surly Scotsmen dressed in black, the Jesus And Mary Chain somehow balanced a love of ’60s pop, punk and garage with a desire to create the most obnoxious racket they could muster. This involved future Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie beating the shit outta two and four on a minimal drumkit, William Reid abusing a cheap Japanese fuzzbox and his brother Jim letting a hollowbody guitar dangle from his neck, spitting constant dentist-drill feedback as he mumbled something atop. Following their perfect debut LP, Psychocandy, JAMC alternated between their pure pop and noise/assault sides. These elements worked best unseparated.
Best heard on: SAMPLER
Mid-’80s Washington, D.C. emigrates to the Lower East Side, Pussy Galore brought the rock ’n’ roll and punk attitudes back to noise. Fronted by future Blues Explosion mastermind Jon Spencer, PG raised an unholy din not dissimilar to putting a copy of the Nuggets ’60s garage comp and some scuffed-up Rolling Stones 45s through a meat grinder. It helped to have ex-Sonic Youth drummer Bert pounding a kit that featured a few bits and bobs culled from a junkyard. Lacking a bass guitar, PG’s three-guitar assault was the ultimate simultaneous desecration/celebration of all that’s great about rock ’n’ roll.
Halo Of Flies
Best heard on: Music For Insect Minds
Named for an Alice Cooper song and masterminded by Minneapolis hardcore vet and ex-Marine Tom Hazelmyer, Halo Of Flies were a unique monster sewn together from seemingly random parts: post-Hendrix guitar moans; side two of Black Flag’s Damaged; primal scream therapy; and the European version of ’60s garage dubbed freakbeat. Add to the potent stew Hazelmyer’s determination to push the pissed-up Ugly American stereotype to cartoonishly pissed-off extremes and you have some of the most combustible music of the ’80s. Tracks such as “Headburn” and “No Time” still have a kill ratio of 500 yards—and still sound fresh and juicy.
Best heard on: Heroin Man
You couldn’t spit in early ’90s Austin without hitting a noise band. Honestly, it got to be a bit of a cliche. But Cherubs were exceptional among that spate of Austin bands who sounded like power tools being thrown down a water well. Ex-Ed Hall drummer Kevin Whitley moved from behind the kit to be mean to his throat and an old Univox guitar. Owen McMahon made a bass guitar sound like a cement mixer. And Brent Prager was all flailing limbs and flying dreadlocks behind the drum set Whitley abandoned. The nicest guys offstage, Cherubs made the most ferociously angry caterwaul of the era. This was a good thing.
Best heard on: Hypermagic Mountain
One part crazed early ’90s Japanoise a la Boredoms or Ruins, one part avant-garde composers such as Philip Glass and Sun Ra and one part extremely lo-fi/ultra-subterranean hardcore, Lightning Bolt have shocked and awed audiences since 1994. Former Rhode Island School of Design students Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson favor guerrilla-style performances, setting up on the floor in the middle of the crowd. Chippendale batters high-speed jazz drums and hollers into an old telephone receiver mic inside his Lucha Libre-looking mask. Gibson flails crazed riffs on a bass tuned to cello frequencies, patched through what seems like 62 distortion pedals. It’s the most insane high-volume performance art you will ever see/hear/experience.
Best heard on: Live At Third Man Records
The Tokyo-based trio of Atsuo (drums, vocals), Wata (lead guitar, keyboards, vocals) and Takeshi (bass, vocals, rhythm guitar, on a self-designed double-neck) have been at the intersection of doom metal, noise and psychedelia since 1992. The sheer volume at which Boris perform is both overwhelming and the source of the overtones which define their music, besides being heavier than the elephant cars on the Ringling Brothers train. At times, their tunes take on a beauty bordering on ambient, despite being louder than Motörhead. Possibly best heard on the above-named live record cut at Jack White’s Nashville record shop, though they’ve released 26 studio full-lengths, not counting collaborations with the likes of Merzbow, Sunn O))) and Cult vocalist Ian Astbury.
Best heard on: Gold
Three Atlantans playing exactly the sort of metallic caveman art-metal Hazelmyer’s Amphetamine Reptile Records oozed in its sleep through the ’90s. Whores. guitarist/vocalist Christian Lembach must’ve bought every distortion box in the state of Georgia. The ones he didn’t get, bassist Casey Maxwell must have gotten. Surely Joel Willis goes through a drum kit per week—he so pulverizes those skins. And Lembach’s continual vocalizing in the key of “AAAAUUUUGGGHHH!” certainly resulted in the installation of a bionic larynx by now. They boast two EPs, several singles and no further releases since 2016’s punishing debut full-length, Gold. Hopefully, something new’s on the horizon.
Girls In Synthesis
Best heard on: Now Here’s An Echo From Your Future
“Make all the noise you want!” this London three-piece shout in the coda to 2020 single “They’re Not Listening.” If you won’t, Girls In Synthesis will. Straddling the poles between post-punk and Crass-style anarcho-punk, their racket may be the most propulsive and political on this list. “The vision was to bludgeon the ears without resorting to heavy riffing, distortion, rock ’n’ roll clichés, etc.,” mastermind John Linger told Echoes And Dust in 2018. Yet, they excel in all those things, save for the rock ’n’ roll clichés. Likely the most vigorously thrilling music to appear in this index.