Why Would Anyone Listen to Merzbow?
In 2002, some friends and I took a trip down to LA to go to the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which was curated by Sonic Youth that year. On the bill were some names that I knew and loved, like Aphex Twin and Stereolab, and a lot more that I’d never heard at all. One of these was an unassuming fellow with a laptop who went by the name of Merzbow. Merzbow’s set began with an enormous low drone, the kind earplugs are almost useless against because it makes its way in through the bones of your face. Over the course of what I think was probably a 45-minute set, that drone gradually changed and grew into its ultimate form: a wall of hissing, squealing noise. Noise, you see, is Merzbow’s instrument. He plays the noise.
The only point of reference I had at the time for something like this was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The difference, though, was that Metal Machine Music was terrible. It was a grating, tinny racket that never changed and refused to end. This, though. This was something different. This noise felt like it was all around me. It felt alive. At one point, my friend Mike leaned over to me and said, “This is what it’s like to be in the womb.” I couldn’t disagree. Merzbow was womb-like.
Needless to say, on returning, I needed to find out more about Merzbow, whose real name I now knew was Masami Akita. The Merzbow discography is not an inviting one. His albums number in the hundreds, and his most infamous release is the Merzbox, a massive 50 CD box set of entirely unreleased material dating back to the 1980s, housed in a leather case. (Bondage is a recurring theme in Merzbow’s work.) Furthermore, to my great dismay, I discovered that Merzbow’s recorded output (or at least the sliver of it I’d managed to listen to) does not quite replicate the sensation I got from that one live set I witnessed. (His set, I later learned, consisted of two tracks. The first, with the big drone, was called “Looping Jane,” and the second, noisier track was “Hard Lovin’ Man,” consisting entirely of samples from the Deep Purple song of the same name.) Merzbow’s albums are extremely aggressive in nature, and more often than not are mastered so loudly that having the volume up even a little can threaten to blow you across the room. His harshest releases, such as Pulse Demon or Venereology, are very difficult listening indeed.
I had to keep listening, though. There had to be something buried deep in the Merzbow discography that would give me that feeling again. My insistence on chasing the Merzbow dragon eventually earned me a reputation as “the guy who listens to Merzbow,” but to tell the truth, I only own two solo albums by the man (Hybrid Noisebloom and 1930, if you’re curious), as well as two others where he adds his noise to greater musical proceedings (the live album Rock Dream with the psychedelic heavy metal band Boris, and Cuts of Guilt, Cuts Deeper, a free improvisational album with Mats Gustafsson, Balázs Pándi & Thurston Moore). To me, as a tiny fraction of what he’s released into the world, it seems like a reasonable amount to own, but I’d wager that most people, the kind of people who want music to sound like, you know, music, would scratch their heads in bewilderment upon finding out that I would want to listen to any of it at all, ever.
And to be honest, I can’t say I’d blame them. Music doesn’t get much more inaccessible than noise, and it’s one instance where the age-old complaint, ”That’s not music!” actually holds any water. The only explanation I can offer as to why I enjoy the bit of Merzbow I do is that I’m not just someone who likes music. I like sound a lot too. And sometimes Merzbow albums just sound like loud static (or worse: one excerpt from the Merzbox I listened to was literally just fart noises being made into a tape recorder), but other times they’re chock full of wild, unpredictable noises, and I like those for the same reason I enjoy the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Iannis Xenakis: I can’t pretend to understand what’s going on, but I do like hearing noises I’ve never heard before.
Finally, though, the hidden secret of Merzbow is that, at low volumes, it can actually become relaxing. You’ve all seen albums of field recordings of the ocean or thunderstorms or things like that, right? Well, Merzbow isn’t really all that different, if you think about it. There’s even a video on YouTube where Merzbow’s Noisembryo is used to lull a baby to sleep. Womb-like is right.