Perfect Sound Forever

'90's Noise

Part 3 of 4 by G.E. Light

The Boredoms: inscrutably Japanese pop noise

Makin' up a mess of fun
Makin' up a mess of fun
Lots of fun for everyone

Tra la la, la la la la
Tra la la, la la la la

Four banana, three banana, two banans, one
All bananas playing in the bright warm sun,
Flippin' like a pancake, poppin' like a cork,
Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and not forgetting Snork

Tra la la, la la la la,
Tra la la, la la la la.
—Ritchie Adams-Mark Barkan, "The Banana Splits"

The merry pranksters of Japan's plethora of noise groups (think Melt Banana and Mono for starters), the Boredoms continually reinvent their sound and instrumentation. They are the musical equivalent of Sid and Marty Krofft's HR Pufnstuf and Hanna Barbera's The Banana Splits. Yamamoto Seiichi, sometimes Boredom and Osaka-based label and club owner, makes the point this way: "Sound is everywhere. It is anything. And whatever we think is interesting sound, we begin to collage it together …. But don't take so seriously what we're doing" ( While the band may have fun, they are no joke. Furthermore, it is perhaps no surprise that the best work on noise to date focuses on Japanese Noise (Hegarty, Ilic, Latarta). In fact the country has spawned its own version of the genre dubbed Japanoise: prevalent in the 1980's and 1990's, "it is usually associated with "harsh" characteristics including walls of white noise, non-linear pulses, beats, sampled loops, dialogue, and sirens" ( Japan).17

Bursting onto a relatively wide American consciousness with a supporting role on the 1994 Lollapalooza main stage, the Boredoms have existed as a band since 1986. Originally, Boredoms was a solo recording project for its primary vocalist/noise engineers: Yamatsuka Eye (who has also gone by Yamantaka Eye, Yamataka Eye, and sometimes just eYe among his major stage names).18 eYe is a wildly prolific musician who has collaborated with the likes of Shimmy Disc's Kramer on 1990's Soul Discharge, Sonic Youth on 1993's TV Shit EP, Bill Laswell's Praxis and John Zorn's Naked City to name but the four best known examples. Like the Ex before them, this sprawling collective of Osaka-based musicians continually fooled around with which instruments they chose to play; however, unlike the Ex, Boredoms were highly unstable, running through members regularly and then occasionally recycling them back for later sonic adventures. For our purposes, two lineups are key: the first classic mid-career line up which recorded Pop Tatari in 1993 and appeared on the 1994 Lollapalooza main stage. The liner notes list that lineup as God Mom (Bod, Pistol, Produce), Hyla (The baseears, Vox), Yama-Motor (Odb Guitar, Vox), Yoshimmy P-We (Drum 1, Per, Vox), Atari (Drum 2, Pad, Vox), Yoshi-Kawa (Singing), and King Kazoo Eye (kazoo and Nothing, Ahhhgt). Translating this 'Boredomese' presents a line up of God Mama (dancer), Hira Hayashi (bass, vocals) Yamamoto Seiichi (guitar and vocals), Yoshimi P-We (primary drums, percussion, vocals), ATR (secondary drums, electric pad, vocals) Yoshikawa Toyohito (Vocals), and eYe (kazoo and everything else). The second was a new version of the band dubbed V8rdoms, which resembled nothing so much as a pomo drum circle. According to POP KISS: The Unofficial Boredoms Discography:
their line-up is now Eye on electronics and vocals, Yoshimi on drums, percussion and vocals, and ATR and Youjiro on drums. This lineup goes further into the tribal stylings of the Vision Creation Newsun album. Technically, they are now named V8rdoms, and have done some new recording under this name, but they have been touring the States and Europe with this line-up under the name Boredoms to prevent confusion.
Having begun to unravel the mysteries that make up Boredoms, let's turn to their recorded output with respect to the parameters of my narrative. 19
In 1993, the Boredoms released Pop Tatari on Warner Reprise, undoubtedly one of the most complex, challenging bits of noise ever released as a pop/rock record by a major commercial label. Even with the shout outs from John Zorn and Sonic Youth and the Lollapalooza gig, it would prove to be their last major label release of 'new' material. This disc runs the gamut from pure tonal white noise like the opener "Noise Ramones" with its piercing EBS test tone to more almost-straightforward songs like "Bore Now Bore" with its Zeppelinesque riffing. Typical of the Boredoms modus operandi is "Which Dooyoo Like," a borrowed Can reference in the title, a spoken word soundtrack and a variety of studio as instrument tricks melding hip hop, trance, lounge, and metal musical nuggets (its progeny: Melt-Banana).

The two '94 discs Onanie Bomb meets the Sex Pistols and Chocolate Synthesizer illustrate the breadth and variety of Boredoms approach. Onanie bomb is an American compilation of their first two Japanese releases and emphasizes the chaotic in their music. Not a lo-fi record by any means, but nevertheless gloriously shambolic. It also highlights their debt to the Butthole Surfers (see the disc's concluding trilogy of songs) as well as some of Yoko's finer vinyl shouting. "No Core Punk" melds primal scream therapy to hardcore speed metal thrash. Chocolate Synthesizer suggests a move in a more proggy direction, although a proginess of the most Germanic indie order a la Faust, Neu!, Amon Düül or Amon Düül II. 'Acid Police" kicks off the disc in fine fashion featuring a call and response vocal between eYe and his minions that becomes a trance-like Krautrock epic, finishing with an all-obliterating Taiko drum pound that won't just fade away. "B for Boredoms" has them spelling them out crowd cheers as if they were like a weirdly psychedelic record made by The Chipmunks. And that's just for starters, but you get the gist of this all over the place sonic madness.

After this burst of stateside activity, Boredoms faded away from the American consciousness, not that they were any less productive. They resurfaced around 2001 with Vision Creation Newsun and the new line up which I would see live the following year on a decades-on return trip to visit friends in the greater Bay area. Back to Boz Scagg's Slim's we go on March 15th for a double bill of the Boredoms (so-called because V8rdoms would just be too confusing) with openers Blectum from Blechdom (the Mills College performance art turntable duo consisting of Kevin Blectum, AKA Kristen Erickson, and Blevin Blechdom, AKA Bevin Kelley). What Boredoms had become was totally unexpected and mind-blowing all at once. Think Iron John on acid or some kind of psychedelic drum circle (well square) like Steve Reich's "Drumming" with a hefty electronic EFX boost. The set was one 'song" but it lasted about 70 minutes and was thoroughly captivating with eYe serving as conductor, encourager, knob twiddler and shouter-in-chief.

The version of the band with Yamamoto added on guitars returned last year with Seadrum/House of Sun, the title referring to the discs two tracks. It is alternatively a kraut-rock enviro fest played on drums slowly being submerged in coastal tides and an Eastern-influenced raga drone for strings, guitars and other electronics. Where they head next is anyone's guess.

Godspeed You Black Emperor!: the post-modern nonet

It's the whole CD business thing, really. I'm just another victim of repackaging.
--Kevin Shields

It's my life; it is my voice,
It is stupid; it is my noise.

This mysterious Montreal nonet—note the immediate connection to free jazz and improvisational groups headed by people like Albert Ayler— literally deconstructs songs into sides made of spliced music and 'live' ambient sounds. Their music is primarily instrumental; one might even call it environmental chamber rock. The secrecy of the band about itself is only matched by the variety and wit of its packaging efforts. Most famous are the impossible to determine track listings; they're there if you can discern the code. For example disc one of Lift Your Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven shows two tracks of 22:32 and 22:35 respectively. However, upon further inspection of the packaging insert we see that Tracks 1 and 2 really consist of spliced together tape fragments of varying lengths (see figure next page). Of these, a live favorite long has been "World Police and Friendly Fires." Their shows are also multimedia fests and include the following instrumentation: 3 guitars, 2 basses (!), French horn, violin, viola, cello, percussion, and film/slide projectors. They themselves describe this disc as "Full-band orchestrations, field recordings, tape manipulations & smaller ensemble suites. Four sides of vinyl unfold the sunshine & stormcloud vistas of Godspeed's compositional landscape" (CD booklet).

Lately, Godspeed has become a kind of foil against which one checks one's indie cred. Even a bland mainstream rag like Newsweek has discovered this "instrumental rock for the drinking and thinking crowd," promising "artful moodiness" not "quirky kitsch" by "offering dreamy then belligerent melodies with complex instrumentation" (Ali, p. 71). Rob Massey in reviewing a recent Baltimore show (March 2001) for Spin notes: "Eschewing interviews, identifying themselves by first names only, and purveying a ghostly and demanding chamber music devoid of lyrics, Godspeeed have carved out their own negative space, one that an increasingly large fan base is eager to see filled' (p. 54) Only an ever increasingly irrelevant Rolling Stone fails to get Godspeed by having them as a thing that was too cool in its April 12, 2001 'Cool Issue.' On its most recent effort, Yanqui U. X. O., the band was produced by none other than Mr. Albini, presenting a disc of three songs and over 70 minutes of "completely immersive instrumental rock" (CD booklet). The timeliness of this discussion of unexploded ordnance, cluster bombs or landmines needs no mentioning. Such items in and of themselves provide a kind of non-musical noise all over our globe.

Lift Your Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven... Tracks 1 and 2

Towards an aesthetics of nineties noise20

Have you ever heard your Momma shout,
Noise Annoys!
--The Buzzcocks

The noise pours out of me

The conspiracy
of silence ought
to revolutionise
my thought
--apologies to Howard Devoto

In this essay, I am not arguing that these musical groups are part of any coherent group or self-defined movement. A quick look at their locations and nationalities coupled with a simple listen to their music puts paid to such nonsensical talk. Nor am I making any real argument for the absolute innovation of their noise productions. Conceptually, the notion of mechanized noise, or better yet of the clamor of the everyday, as a form of musicality dates to at least the end of the nineteenth century (Eisenberg, pp. 70, 128–33; Frith, 1998, pp. 99–100; Russolo, 1986, p. 23; Toop, p. 124), the original theorizing over such possibilities dates back to about 1914 (Russolo, 1916 and 1986), and the actual use of tape technology to produce found sound to the early 1950's (Eisenberg, pp. 133–4; Prendergast, pp. 49–50, 78–81).

Luigi Russolo, the youngest of the Italian Futurists, conceptualized and actually built with the help of fellow painter, inventor, and percussionist, Ugo Piatti, twenty one intonarumori or noise instruments with suggestive names like 'Howler,' 'Gurgler,' 'Low Hummer' and 'Roarer' (1986, pp. 75–80). 21 He gave his original demonstration concert 'on the evening of June 2, 1913, before 2000 spectators at the Teatro Storchi in Modena' featuring his first instrument 'a burster (scoppiatore) [which] reproduced the noise of an automobile engine and could vary the pitch of the noise within the limits of two octaves' (Russolo, p. 32). Interest led to concerts through Europe, including an infamous series at the Coliseum in London in 1914, although ironically, these shows were not particularly noisy according to many in attendance (Toop, p. 76). In his original 1913 'The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto', Russolo proclaims 'We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds' (1986, p. 25) and defines this key-concept as beyond the 'most complicated dissonances' of 'the talented composers of today' (1986, p. 28). Instead of such dissonances, Russolo wants to replace them 'with the addition and the substitution of sound' (1986, p. 28). Beyond mere 'imitative reproduction' (1986, p. 28)...
Noise must become a prime element to mould into the work of art. That is, it has to lose its accidental character in order to become an element sufficiently abstract to achieve the necessary transformation of any prime element into (sic) abstract element of art.
(p. 87)
David Toop concludes, 'Russolo took a brave step, but only one. Noise, sound, musical rules, the growing clamour of mechanised life, the lines drawn between them were blurring' (p. 78). By the late 1940's, technology had caught up with theory in the form of magnetic tape and its use as a media for recording sounds (Prendergast, pp. 78–80; Toop pp. 124–5). Two French Pierres (Schaeffer and Henry) began experimenting with tape technology and produced musique concrete and a Radio France concert featuring a 'collection of five pieces known in English as Concert of Noises' (Toop, p. 42).

These musical experiments in noise finally came to maturity in the hands of Edgard Varèse, who dismembered 'the solid objects of European composition--the score... pitch relationships, tuning and harmony, the boundary between music and not-music' (Toop, p. 78). 'He received the gift of a tape recorder in 1953 and used it to build up a library of sounds' (Prendergast, p. 36), eventually leading to his two great contributions to 'Organized Sound' (Varèse's preferred terminology), the poorly received 1954 French radio production "Déserts" which was completed in Pierre Schaeffer's studio and the acclaimed 1958 < "Poème électronique" for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair. 22This composition as audiovisual sight and sound installation involved four elements--light, color, sound, and rhythm--whose 'points of congruence, or at least intersection, would be determined solely by chance. The one thing they had in common was time, specifically 480 seconds (8 minutes) of it. The visual element itself had four components: a film presenting images of human civilization, colored lighting for ambiance, simple shapes superimposed on the film screen by projectors, and finally three-dimensional shapes illuminated by UV light. The musical component involved three track tape with one track for the music and the other two for stereophonic and reverb effects. A second tape with fifteen tracks controlled the distribution of the sound throughout the building's 400 plus loudspeakers. Each tape was scanned on a machine with a maximum of fifteen playback heads. Both units were duplicated, so the control room had four playback machines plus twenty 120 watt amplifiers. High frequency speakers were mounted on the wall and low frequencies ones on the floor. The end result produced an eight minute loop, not including Xenakis' two minutes of musical interlude as audiences changed, which 'could be heard continuously but... was strangely different each time the sequence repeated' (Prendergast, 36).

Concurrently across the pond, John Cage was dabbling in preparing pianos, making music out of chance, indeterminacy and silence and, most germane for this discussion, composing and recording the 1952 "Williams Mix," 'a work for eight tracks of magnetic tape that blazes through a library of more than 500 sounds on tape in four-and-a-half minutes' (Grubbs 2006 p.6). Soon he would move on to the even more radical "Cartridge Music" (1960), a 1963 recording of what David Grubbs calls 'demolition stuff. The record begins with a nice squeal of feedback... wan, random, repetitive iterations... Other sounds include scraping, dragging, ripping, and zipping' (2006, p. 11). We must also remember Cage's later genre invented in 1967 called 'Musicircus,' which Charles Junkerman describes as 'an urban genre--crowded, noisy, and insurbodinate' (Perloff and Junkerman, p. 5).

Cage himself closes the tape loop of this narrative neatly with his consideration of Varèse and noise:
However more clearly and actively than anyone else of his generation, he established the present nature of music. This nature does not arise from pitch relations (consonance-dissonance) nor from twelve tones nor seven plus five (Schoenberg-Stravinsky), but arises from an acceptance of all audible phenomena as material proper to music. While others were still discriminating "musical" tones from noises, Varèse moved into the field of sound itself, not splitting it into two by introducing into perception of it a mental prejudice. That he fathered forth noise--that is to say, into twentieth-century music--makes him more relative to present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters, whose notion of the number 12 was some time ago dropped and shortly, surely, their notion of the series will be seen as no longer urgently necessary. (Silence, 84)
From these beginnings blooms most of the experimental music of the late twentieth and early twenty first century including, rap, techno, ambient, and my own "genre"--Noise. 23

Finally, I am arguing here not for a poetics of noise, but rather I am proposing that a series of texts/pieces of supposedly different genres interconnect with respect to a particular collection of sociocultural moments and that this nexus not only develops a common attitude, but that it also produced the most interesting noise/music of the decade. 24 These bands also hit on two out of three of Raymond Williams' troika--being all at once emergent and not surprisingly residual given the earlier history I have just charted with respect to the culture of noise. 25 In discussing the value of popular music, my essay's idealistic goal is to play Teddy baseball to Raymond's Williams and make them dominant, as if a .666 average wasn't good enough. Simon Frith focuses on how popular music puts 'into play a sense of identity that may or may not fit the way we are placed by other social forces... my argument is that music only does this through its impact on individuals, and that this impact is obdurately social' (1996, pp. 276–7). I think Weasel Walter sums it up best
It really is anti-progressive progressive rock. We're a fucking no wave band... No wave was an aesthetic; it wasn't a certain style of music. It had a lot more to do with an attitude than a 'sound.'
Each of these so-called 'noise bands' said no to current musical trends, to easy, non-confrontational listening, and either directly, in the cases of Boredoms, the Flying Luttenbachers, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and the Ex, or more surreptitiously, in the cases of Henry's Dress and My Bloody Valentine, to the then contemporary politics of multinational consumerism. Instead, each band had a DIY ethic far beyond that of the traditional punk learn a chord and form a band. Here, Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugzai fame becomes a spiritual forefather of sorts with his foundation of Dischord records and its attempt to keep costs low and his own self-producing mode. 26 In a variety of manners, each band cleaves to the DIY ethic either by producing their own labels and marketing (Boredoms, The Ex, Flying Luttenbachers) or by being heavily (Boredoms, Henry's Dress, FLs, Ex) or obsessively almost to the point of non-completion (MBV) involved in sound production. Much of what they record and even more of what they play live is of an improvisational nature, but usually in a carefully controlled manner to produce maximum noise effect without endless noodling on solos. Finally, many of these bands involve unique instrumentation and/or the creation of new instruments of the use of emergent technologies for specific sound effects. Perhaps then this is an argument of the emerging, zeitgeist type, less surprising than one might expect given our increasingly linked 'virtual' planet.

Thus, I note the phenomenon that, for me at least, the most interesting popular music of the last decade was all about noise. If I wanted to extend this argument backwards and flesh out the brief account provided here, I would probably produce a parallel text to Mark Prendergast's The Ambient Century entitled A Century of Noise: Sonic History in the 1900s, although I would also discuss non-musical subjects like acoustics, noise reduction and other sociopolitical concerns over noise, and finally other cultural media including but not limited to film and literature.

The prototypical, ascent into noise artist of the nineties is surprisingly a Canadian survivor of the sixties, Neil Young. After spending the better part of the 1980's making one crappy genre record after another (RE • AC • TOR, Trans, Everybody's Rockin', and Landing on Water, for starters) and becoming more than a little bit of a Reaganite crank, Mr. Soul returned to form and became a godfather to grunge. 27Reuniting with Crazy Horse for a live tour, Young produced a limited edition triple live CD--Arc Weld. Weld, the more straightforward double CD, is a kind of reprise of Live Rust while Arc, the limited extra disc, was his answer to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.28 Arc features one 38 minute track which is Young's personal mix of feedback squalls and other live guitar effects.

Given the oddly ahistorical fact of Neil Young's centrality to my narrative to date, how do we possibly theorize this moment of noise? Here, I must turn to Jacques Attali's seminal work of the same name, all the while keeping Russolo's primal theorizing in mind and play. Attali seeks to explain the political economy of music in order to discuss new trends in improvisational jazz and to provide 'a call to theoretical indiscipline, with an ear to sound matter as the herald of society' (p. 5). I agree with his major claim that music's political economy is 'a succession of orders (in other words, differences) done violence by noises (in other words, the calling into question of differences) that are prophetic because they create new orders, unstable and changing' (p. 19). But my focus will remain more on the emergent and residual violent noises and less on the dominant musical orders.

In seeking an emergent productive version of noise(s) in 1990's rock not deemed to be liminally non-musical, I've sought to challenge much of the underlying thinking about the basic conceptual categories of sound, noise, and music. 29 Specifically, Attali finds the creation of power relations in defining the liminally contested boundaries of music and noise. For him, music is wrought out of tamed noise. Noise is no longer musical but an über-category concerned with the very material production of music. Still, I hold out hope for a schema that allows noise to be conceptualized and understood on its own terms and not in the service of some more melodic "pleasant" category. 30 Even as astute a critic as Doug Kahn, falls for this hierarchization by positing what he calls 'significant noises' (p. 4). Granted, he claims the adjective is not qualitative but rather illustrative of the socially constructed meanings of sounds. His focus on the high art of the Avant-garde and modernism, however, suggests a more ulterior motive: that while all noises are created equal, some noises are just more equal than others. Or, as John Corbett says of Attali's 'death proclamation for free jazz,' ironically it seems 'to implicate him in that very containing, repressing, limiting, censoring, expelling process that he regretfully sees in the popular (mis)treatment of free music' (pp. 3-4). Or put another way, why take the noise out of music and sound? Why not accept noise for noise's sake? Why can't noise in and of itself be assimilated as a kind of chaotic order similar to that which rules in fractal geometry and related fields. 31 Why not?

We are in a world of changing technology accurately predicted by Attali, a world where standard categories of listener and presenter of music are breaking down, where consumers of music can become their own producers. Listeners are no longer passive, repressed consumers, held in thrall by an alienating technology, but instead have become active participants in the creation and dissemination of modern popular culture thanks to file sharing technologies like Napster and as well as production tools like's Mixman eMixTM, Cakewalk, and Pro Tools. 32 This would be my revision of Attali's concept of composition, not only the act of opposing normality through artistic creation but also the productive generation of difference through an activist reception which composes, (re)composes, and remixes as well. 33

If noise be the food of rage, play on!

This essay is presented on MS-built Amps and Speakers. Thanks Jim!


The first kernels of this final incarnation of the essay date to April 1993 on my internal hard drive. For specific suggestions and comments, I thank Mark Applebaum, Gabriel Bereny, Hannah Blair, Joe Brenner, John Brocato, Ben Detenber, Simon Frith, Gordon Garretson, Yary Hluchan, Mike Howes, Nick Mirov, Brian Reed, Tim Roughgarden, and Jon Smith. A special shout-out to Todd Ploharski and LowYoYo in Athens, GA for providing me with the MBV rarities on disc. Special thanks to Red West for finding the bootleg of the MBV Slim's show and passing it along (aaahhh aural memories...). Thanks to Kevin Shields and Weasel Walter for fascinating chats. Thanks to Steve Diggle for providing me with his official lyrics for "Harmony in My Head," even while he was touring, recording the new Buzzcocks, and authoring his memoirs (busy fellow that). Thanks to David Grubbs for a pre-EMP Pop Conference peek at his work on John Cage. Finally thanks to Jason Gross for 'encouraging' me to just finish the thing.

Note: all mistakes are mine and mine alone.

Suggested Further Listening

Go for the entire oeuvre unless otherwise stated. These suggestions should not be read as definitive; for many bands, I have simply chosen the CDs that most demonstrate their 'noisy' qualities. For a related but fuller list of 1960's and '70's noise recordings, see Chris Cutler's Annotated Discography appended to "Progressive Music in the UK" (137–40). More recently, a Noise primer by David Keenan appeared in Wire #246. See also the 'List of noise musicians' on Wikipedia and the astounding alphamanbeast's™ noise directory (

See Part 4 (of 4) of the '90's noise article
including Works cited, discography & footnotes

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