Perfect Sound Forever

'90's Noise

Part 2 of 4 by G.E. Light

Henry's Dress: got feedback if you want it

Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
—Nigel Tufnel

haunting, moving, jagged, silent, rocking, angry, sad, poignant, and rough. If you can't take it, don't listen to it...
—soolyme reviewing Arc on

This amazing little Bay Area band by way of New Mexico made perhaps the most melodic and controlled guitar feedback since Andy Gill laid down his axe for Gang of Four and stopped emitting "thick wads of semi-tuneful distortion" (Dougan). Originally hailing from Albuquerque, Henry's Dress followed the clarion call of the Bay Area in July of 1993 not so much to find their own summer of love but because band member Amy Linton had been admitted to the San Francisco Art Institute.12 They blew into town like the dry hot desert dust devil of legend but with feedback not sand as the abrasive element. The trio consisted of Linton and Matt Hartman who swapped duties as singer/guitarist/drummer and the bassist Hayyim. The band released one EP and one album and "broke up prematurely in early to mid-1997." Linton moved on to more notoriety with The Aisler's Set while Hayyim recorded several solo items as Uakachaka Guitar. Currently, he is in the band Sounds of the Barbary Coast. Most reviewers favor the full-length CD Bust 'em Green where the "fragile melodies' remain undeterred by the 'mass of sound'" ("The Bands Not in the Trouser Press Guide Guide," p. 122). My personal preference is for the simpler, sterner stuff I heard first on the eponymous debut EP. They played loud and fed back, "but when we play small places, I sometimes make an announcement that people might want to go get some cotton..." (Matt talking to cool beans). And always the amplifiers set to 1 louder.

While My Bloody Valentine might produce one 17 minute feedback epic, Henry's Dress was all about the noise. As Matt told cool beans #6

I seem to recall our early shows here were often kind of jaw-dropping experiences for a lot of people. And also considering that our first show we played for fifteen people at some metal club in Oakland. We had bigger amps then and we used to get compared to a British Melvins and Unsane and stuff like that. We were definitely working in solid bass frequency. There really wasn't a lot of treble in our music except for the cymbals. It was much slower and the songs were a lot longer and we used to do things like set the guitars up and let them feed back and get this real loud... and the feedback would kind of grow and grow exponentially and just kind of keep going and let that sink in and then go into our songs.
Such awe at the noisy sound and the way in which Henry's Dress controlled it is a common theme of show and album reviews alike. This indeed was a band to confound sound people: "I always assume that they're pretty confounded as they raise and lower faders and nothing changes" (Matt to cool beans #6).

Slumberland Records #34 or the eponymous debut EP by Henry's Dress was a prolonged blast of guitar noise when it appeared in late 1994, even if the 8 tracks clock in at just under 21 minutes. What's astonishing about this record is the melodic nature of the feedback and the control that all three band members seem to have over their sound effects. A song like ""A" is for Cribbage" starts as a mid-1960's Who rip-off, but soon the drums harmonize with clashing cymbals that somehow resonate off the droney but still melodic feedback of several amps. On the EP's opening track "Definitely Nothing," the exquisite control of the feedback allows for full octave leaps until we enter the wall of noise territory familiar from the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and the like.

Assuredly the follow up album Slumberland Records 54, AKA bust 'em green is a more mature and less noisy affair, but I'm not sure that's the improvement that many critics claim it to be. The best songs on this CD remain those that teeter between pure pop melodism and utter crashing noise ("target practice," "winter '91" and "sunshine proves all wrongness"). The politeness of the opening track's feedback toned down from 11 to say about 6 proves the point. There's just not enough yearning there. One of the problems is that less feedback just highlights how far front the cymbals are in the mix and their continual clanging annoys after a while. Also, the Wilsonesque melodies always work best for these bands when we have to strain to try and actually hear them as on MBV's "Feed Me With Your Kiss" or Henry's Dress "Definitely Nothing."

Small indie labels like Slumberland (founded in Washington, DC but eventually resituated in Berkeley) will be central to our noise story. Here's what Slumberland says about itself:

Slumberland began operations in 1989 as a collective effort consisting of members of DC area bands Velocity Girl, Big Jesus Trash Can/Whorl, Black Tambourine and Powderburns. We were all friends from the University of Maryland, and inspired by such things as C-86, early Creation, Postcard, K, Bus Stop, lower East Side noise and the renegade art aesthetics of people like Cage, Burroughs and Duchamp. Slumberland was explicitly meant to be an "anti" organization: anti-punk conformity, anti-musicianly attitude, anti- big label commodification of music, anti-fashion.
Some artists will even make a living moving from one obscure label to another to another and other band members will either found their own labels ala Ian MacKaye's Dischord, Bob Pollard's Fading Captain Series, or Greg Ginn's SST. Walter Weasel and The Ex Kollektiv do a bit of both as we shall soon see.

The Flying Luttenbachers: post-everything

Get a radio or phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen …. But I don't just mean sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down of the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it, and stay there …. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it.
--James Agee

Chicago is indeed a city of broad shoulders and even broader guitars; note that a seminal figure in rock's descent into noise (in terms of both instrumentation and production) is none other than Chicago's Steve Albini: erstwhile frontman for Big Black and Rapeman, current lead for Shellac, bombastic indie rock talking head extraordinaire, and for much of the 1990's, the most influential hard guitar producer—the Pixies, the Breeders, Nirvana, P J Harvey, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, the Wedding Present—although he prefers the more technologically correct terms, 'engineer' or 'recorder' (Robbins 643). Beyond even Albini's wildest dreams in some ways is the great clattering constructions of the almost indescribable Flying Luttenbachers13. This free jazz meets meets 'MurdermachineMuzak' trio is named after a pseudonym of Chicago's famed improviser, Hal Russell, née Hal Luttenbacher (Corbett, p. 112). The Luttenbachers produce music on the edge of many genres (jazz, rock, noise, art) but not clearly in any of them. The list of atypical rock instruments on Revenge is in and of itself to the point: note especially the violin and clarinet, neither of which I doubt you'll be able to truly distinguish in the 'mix.' Is it rock, jazz, art music, just a gawdaful racket, or all of the above and more?

Since their original inception by continuing drummer Weasel Walter 'in the Fall of 1991 while he was a student of Hal Russell's in Chicago' ('The Bands Not in the Trouser Press Guide Guide,' p. 116), The Flying Luttenbachers have undergone radical shifts in personnel, but always stayed true to their goal of producing a 'Punk Jazz Inferno' as an early show flyer proclaimed ( After this early inception, the band began to record more seriously with the following personnel: Weasel Walter, percussion.; Ken Vandermark, reeds; Chad Organ, tenor sax. This new line-up recorded the 546 Seconds of Noise EP which moved away from the Russell oriented 'free jazz' to more 'focused results.' The band even played its first live gig August 8, 1992. They then recorded 'the 1389 Seconds of Noise EP, which was originally planned to be a double seven inch set in a gatefold cover (hence the amount of seconds in the title.)' ( history2.html). These two titles demonstrate the Luttenbachers' debt to avant garde works like Le Corbusier and Varèse's collaborative "480 seconds for the Philips Pavilion" multimedia project and Cage's "4'33"." These early rare recordings have now been assembled on a single CD, Restrospektiw III. My first real acquaintance with the band began with the quintet version of Weasel, Vandermark, Organ, Dylan Posa (guitar), and Jeb Bishop (bass and trombone) which produced the various sessions compiled as Destroy all Music. Here, the New York No Wave influence shines through, as demonstrated in their unique poster art. By this album, Posa's guitar was becoming dominant on most tracks as the shift in emphasis from the jazz to the 'punk' of so-called 'punk jazz' was, with the reeds, being used more percussively and less melodically.

Revenge is even noisier and suggests a move away from punk towards metal, presaged perhaps by the band's funky metallic robot logo. The band's website deems this album 'THE Seminal Chicago No Wave album containing 10 furious dissonant guitar/bass/drum assaults' ( The album launches itself on "Storm of Shit," a track with some very amusing aquatic effects to close it out. The CD's sonic textures run the gamut from the jerky minimalism of "Spasm" to the machine shop rhythms of "Clank" to something pretty close to conventional melody in "4, 5, 6."

Gods of Chaos pushes the extreme noise improvisation even further and is unique for being a second Luttenbachers album with a constant lineup. A concept album about the possible demise and destruction of humanity, Gods of Chaos makes apparent the necessary links between free jazz and death metal and then proceeds to implode them in a cacophony of instrumentations and other found sounds, As Walter notes:

The band utilized a wider scope of musical variation than ever before. The instrumentation expanded from the previously documented 'power trio' format to include acoustic and electric guitars, basses, drums, voices, percussion, synthesizer, bass clarinets, clarinets, saxophones, and violins, as well as endless shock/sound effects like live construction working and ambient sounds reflecting specific environments.
The importance of minimalism to this album also cannot be overstated.

The more recent albums epitomize much of what I'm calling 'the Noise aesthetic.' Trauma is a limited edition (mine is number 57 of 500), DIY release produced in double-color vinyl format (one green and one blue). The careful packaging, right down to Walter's thoughtful double-sided notes and current band history insert, looks forward to the even more extreme and inventive concepts of The Ex and Godspeed, You Black Emperor! (about whom more in a sec). The record is an attempt to get beyond traditional free jazz playing with a trio consisting of Walter on percussion, Michael Colligan on tenor sax, and Kurt Johnson on contrabass. It also represents a turning away from amplification to acoustic instrumentation. The most recent band version of The Flying Luttenbachers 6.0 produced Infection and Decline, an exploration of what can only be called 'Brutal Prog.' It features Walter on drums, Alex Perkolup on earth bass and Jonathan Hischke on air bass and was released on yet another label, Troubleman. A staff member of Aquarius Records in San Francisco describes the record thusly: 'That's right: bass, bass, and drums. Nothing else. Six dense, blistering tracks of sonic destructo-insanity¬--including the massive sixteen minute version of the Luttenbachers' live staple, Magma's "De Futura"... Sick.' My highlight would be Perkolup's "Elfmeros," six minutes of endlessly manic drumming and overlapping and colliding bass lines and guitar-like riffs.

To fully get the point of the Flying Luttenbachers' in whatever version they exist, one must see them play live. As Jeff Stern notes in Badaboom GramoPhone #3:

Their live shows are transcendent and to listen to the record is to only get apart of the overall experience. It's not just that they put on a great show, it's that something is lost when the music is recorded. There's so much going on in their music, and so much depends on the spirit and energy of the moment of spontaneous improvisation, that trying to capture it through mere technology is insufficient.
('The Bands Not in the Trouser Press Guide Guide,' p. 117)
I saw the Infection and Decline-era two bass and drum trio play at The Last Splash in Mobile, AL in 2002. They brought a full-on percussive frenzy that would have impressed even The Ex. Most intriguing was Walter's use of a 'sequencer' to produce noise effects between songs. The continual aural assault is a good example of their overall stage aesthetic as are Weasel Walter's face paint and hair extension antennae, Hischke's psychedelic green smoking jacket, and Perkolup's outfit that crosses a Mummy with the standard B-movie psych ward escapee straight jacket and face restraint look.

Who knows what the future efforts of band will be, except that they will involve noise (whatever the volume) and at the center of it all will be Weasel Walter (it might be useful to compare this approach to that eschewed by Robert Pollard with his Guided By Voices revolving door posse and closet full of side projects and one-off recordings). In October 2002, The Flying Luttenbachers became a solo project:

The Flying Luttenbachers are now a one-man band with Weasel Walter. He will be touring in November and January [2002-3] performing on various instruments with the aid of backing tracks. What the heck? Phase seven will begin in February 2003 when Weasel relocates to San Francisco. The future music will remain highly complex, but reintregrating the abstract/improvised concepts lacking in the previous phase.
Walter relocated to the Bay Area, performed solo shows of 'covers,' and eventually recorded a solo Luttenbachers album, Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder (2003) between March and May in Oakland. On it, he plays a wide array of instruments from the rock standard (guitar, bass and drums) to the more classic free improv (sax, other reeds, piano) to the post-modern electronic (MIDI and sequencer). What emerges is a dense tapestry of rapidly shifting musical styles from prog to skronk to no wave and well beyond. Throughout, Walter's hyperactively accurate drumming provides the momentum as he investigates the end of his original cosmology.
Walter has conceptualized his entire catalog into a storyline, that strangely enough, does not come off as pretentious or contrived. Every album since Revenge of the Flying Luttenbachers helps tell a story of robots (sic) dealings with the earth's destruction, and the genesis of a 'planetoid being' from atomic chaos. Normally, apocalyptic storylines of death and destruction come off as adolescent, but Walter succeeds with some intricate, almost silly, details and makes the end of the world more than just Swedish death metal fodder.
Thus endeth the lesson and carols of the 'Brutal Prog' era.

Weasel Walter then reconstituted the band as a trio and now quartet featuring Ed Rodriguez (Gorge Trio) and Mick Barr (Orthrelm and Octis) on guitars and Mike Green (Burmese) on bass. The trio version sans Barr released The Void with its tinges of "Stravinsky and Messiaen and Ives," according to Walter himself. Let's also say that the rock as in guitars has returned with a vengeance, even if hints of his interest in prog and black metal lurk just beneath some tracks' surfaces. What Walter presents is a Space (rock) Opera literally 'about a huge, sentient mass of metal and debris careening through a vast nothingness in search of more matter to break down and recycle' ( The short introduction is straight out of Varèse's musique concrete playbook. Then there is "The Void" itself, subdivided into seven parts. After "The Void," comes "The Sword of Atheism," a wall of feedback to match any Kevin Shields ever produced. Cataclysm featuring the full quartet should drop just as this essay appears on-line.

As Weasel Walter stated to Rob Thornton in 1998
I don't think there's been many conscious decisions to go in specific sonic directions... but right now I think the new lineup is going to be two bass players, violin, and drums. It's gonna be about a third of the volume but the same velocity and the same kill power!
Of course, what ensued was something altogether different and yet all of a kind: 'This band has always been interested in high velocity and density and things like that regardless of what the instrumentation is' ( What the band is about is rock as verb not as a noun; they have become his royal satanic majesty's very idea of a jam band from hell (improv to make Dave Matthews sweat), 'a no frills, irreverent, cathartic approach towards improvisation and composition', and most definitely 'not some esoteric, forbidding art thing' ( Instead they will continue their quest of noisemaking to 'destroy all music.'

Despite the explicit violence of their music and that implied in many of their titles, the band does not see itself as nihilistic; after all they want is Constructive Destruction. Answering a query about whether he hates music, Walter employs a negation to posit his beliefs: 'Not at all. Destroying all music [a common band statement] implies that we start from scratch... we ask "why"? By destroying the world maybe we can get a new one" ( Still, the band often suggests that they want nothing more than to destroy the shibboleths of a complacently homogenous American musical culture by 'showing solidarity with [the] chainsaw wielding rock and roll persona' that avidly destroys hotel furnishings (Interview 6/7/2003). Thus, the Luttenbachers give us a classic death of rock gesture by Weasel Walter who 'wants to drive a M-5 Tank through [fellow partier] Joe Walsh's house' and turn the audiotapes of said event into music ( Ain't Life Grand, indeed!

The Ex: punk classicists

Our own correspondent is sorry to tell,
of an uneasy time that all is not well
On the borders, there's movement,
in the hills, there's trouble
—Wire, "Reuters"

Recently, this Dutch outfit has come to rival Fugazi as the purest thing going, at least in terms of post-punk rock. As Hannah Blair, former KZSU General Manager, notes about the 1999 West coast Starters and Alternators tour, 'while our DC friends [Fugazi] were in fine form, the Ex blew them off the stage... they are angular Dutch art-punk that manages to be anarchic and precise, intellectual and passionate, all at the same time.'14 Following a Marxist approach to the production and distribution of their ouevre, they may be said to play the musical equivalent of the famed Michel's 1974 Oranje national squads' totaal voetbal, whose theory was that 'anyone could do anything... there are merely footballers, totally versatile, totally interchangeable' (Glanville, p. 192).15 Thus Ex music becomes a kind of totale musiek memorable for the continuous fluidity of its varying instrumentations and guest sidevolk. They also take an arbitrary approach to their own music: 'Starting from scratch they decide who plays what by drawing straws."' ( The message is also far more than the medium.

Take for example the famous 2x3" CD artbook, 1936, the spanish revolution, available by air mail for the very reasonable price of $17.50, as most import single CD's without much packaging run $25-50. This work features an almost 100 page photographic essay on the titular subject produced by AK Press. It was originally released as a book with two 7" records in 1986; it was re-released in 1997 in the format described above. The Ex's anarchic left politics show through in their do-it-yourself, or at least do it with friends, marketing and pricing strategies for Ex records through Ralbör's mail order service. However, they connect obsessive record collecting to dread free market capitalism and work very hard to re-release in cheap media their more obscure efforts, all the while providing good money for value with extra goodies like The Ex Newsletters and stickers (but no Greg Ginn outtakes, thank god!). These 'alternative production and distribution routes' go hand in hand with 'their deployment of new, alternative lifestyles' (Corbett, p. 49).

Developing as a Dutch version of Crass, They spent the 1980's working on propaganda and agitpop while many of the earliest records resemble the industrial percussion of Einstruzende Neubauten or Test Dept. Highlights of the earlier recordings can be found on the 1989 double CD compilation, Joggers and Smoggers. By the 1990's, they were ready for more challenging collaborations and improvisations. Most famously, they worked with improvisational cellist Tom Cora. This intervention in classical minimalism finds its ultimate form in the 2001 Ex Orkest CD Een Rondje Holland. This Dutch trip was 'contrived compiled, and arranged by The Ex, at the request of the Holland Festival 2000' (CD booklet). Another more traditional collaboration was the split Konkurrent EP featuring Tortoise + The Ex. As part of this 'in the fishtank' series, the bands were given 'two days to put down on 24 tracks 20 to 30 minutes of whatever they like: regular songs, funny versions, improvised pieces' (CD booklet).

To fully explain The Ex, I will focus on their three most readily available and straight ahead recent albums: 1998's Starters Alternators, 2001's Dizzy Spells, and 2004's Turn, all on Touch and Go records and produced by Steve Albini. The first CD represents when many Americans first heard the band because of the previously mentioned tour in connection with Fugazi. Perhaps the key track is "Frenzy." Bass heavy and full of Katrin's famously chaotic drumming all behind the punk barking of G. W. Sok, which does nothing to hide the biting wit of his lyrics: "well that's not arty-farty/that's when Lenin met McCarthy /and this, as far as can see/was the beginning of a beautiful frenzy." In the April 2001 issue of New Music Monthly, Douglas Wolk applauds Dizzy Spells for demonstrating that "Twenty-plus years into their career, Dutch punk band the Ex are the only still-extant band of their generation about whom it's impossible to say that their old stuff was better. They've gotten considerably smarter, tougher and more inventive with time." 16 The album is highlighted by "Walt's Dizzyland" which asks the immortal questions: "are we fucked are we nice are we ducks are we mice are we men are we mean?"

And then three years later, they arose again and lo, it was a double album of noise, and pie recipes, and heavy African influences, Turn. Besides getting their Konono on (releasing some recent live material by this electrified Congo ensemble), the new Ex lineup simply shreds all comers on this album. Luc Klaasen has exited only to have his double-bass spot ably assumed by the classically-trained Rozemarie, late of the Ex Orkest. Her heavy bowing highlights the opening of "Confusion Errorist," which rapidly becomes a percussive workout of extreme proportions. No mistake here, the first discs' opener lays out the stakes precisely:
We need poets, we need painters
we need poets, we need painters
we need poetry and paintings...

Narrow minds are weapons made for mass destruction
file them under giant ass seduction
sheep with crazy leaders, heading for disaster
courting jesters who take themselves for masters
This is all done to a propulsive yet danceable swarm of noise. They manage to slow and quiet things down a bit at least twice on '3:45 am' and 'In the Event.' And never fear Nixon's favorite Jewish American intellectual gets his as well. The kollektiv rocks on and on and on! All Hail the almighty Ex. You'll never walk alone.

See Part 3 of 4 of the '90's noise article

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