Bring in the Noise

From Wrong's free-improv chaos to Savage Aural Hotbed's circle-saw precision, a disparate local noise scene maps the sound of modern anxiety

In acoustics, noise literally means a signal that bears no information, like aural junk mail. And on first listen, that's probably what most people would take "noise" music for, even in its most musical permutations. "People think of 'noise' as Nine Inch Nails," says John Vance, co-founder of the local improvisational noise group Wrong, "and if anything goes beyond that into something with less structure, then it just sounds like nonsense. Well, I actually like the idea of nonsense. Coming to grips with the nonsense of the world is a very modern idea."

Of course, as Vance points out, "noise" has always been shorthand for music just beyond the edge of comprehension, and every new form that comes along--jazz, bop, blues, rock, hip hop--has been stuck with the epithet at one time. But a genre called "noise" by its creators is relatively new, and the people who responded to such stuff in the '70s and '80s heard something meaningful in the wash of meaningless signals, just as '20s Dadaists heard the panic of post-World War I angst in their babble chants.

My own first taste of noise came in the early '80s at a community center in Madison, Wisc., where most of the hardcore punk shows were held at the time. A Minor Threat knockoff band called Juvenile Truth had gone into hiding for some months and suddenly reappeared as something called Ribfest, which consisted of a bunch of guys violently hammering amplified sheet metal with distorted opera music playing in the background. Here, I felt, was the sound of dread that hardcore's mocking tone masked. The unspeakable roar was the most complete antithesis of Reagan's "morning in America" speech imaginable, a fearful throb evoking an industry-driven world spun out of control. Only Sonic Youth, who played the same space a year later, was as loud or as scary.

Savage Aural Hotbed: Squeezing out sparks with trash barrels and circle saws
Savage Aural Hotbed: Squeezing out sparks with trash barrels and circle saws

"I've always really liked that 'the world's ending' kind of sound," says Dave Sarrazin of the percussion and tool-driven quartet Savage Aural Hotbed, which may be the most accessible and popular local entity to fit under the "noise" rubric. Like Vance and me, Sarrazin first became interested in the dissonant strain of modern music in the '80s, when the European industrial noise of SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten that inspired Ribfest and the New York "no wave" that birthed Sonic Youth began to penetrate the Upper Mid-west. The extent to which local musicians embraced various forms of noise goes a long way toward explaining the persistent use of the label to describe what are essentially rock bands and the bursts of noise in even the most poppy local music.

Back in the mid-'80s, many of the important venues for local noise experimentation were, then as now, art galleries. And Rifle Sport Art Gallery became a legendary Block E center for such performances. (Both the gallery and the band were named after a downtown gaming arcade.) Chris Strouth began working at the gallery as a teenager, and the present-day Future Perfect curator recalls his noise band King Paisley banging away in the space in 1986. "It was a truly, truly hideous listening experience," he says with a laugh. "We were playing glass bottles with ball-peen hammers with microphones inside. The goal was to drive people out of the room." As a part of the gallery's commemoration this month at Intermedia Arts, Strouth has organized two weekends of videos and performances to re-create those earplug days.

Members of Savage Aural Hotbed came together through another downtown gallery called Circus to the Trade, where future Savage bassist William Melton often played with his art-rock outfit, Rendered Useless, and shared bills with Sarrazin's industrial-noise-meets-tribal-drum band Tin Kong, which also included Savage co-percussionist Mark Black.

The bigger punk bands in town liked noise; Hüsker Dü dabbled in clang-play on record. Grant Hart was reportedly a member of the Throbbing Gristle Appreciation Society, named for the founding British industrial band, and he later played in a noise group himself. Even so, performers in the Tin Kong vein had trouble getting club gigs outside of cameos during Kevin Cole's seminal Club Degenerate events, which were held in the Main Room of First Avenue. "That was a period when a lot of seeds were planted," says Cole. "In the early days, Tin Kong would play plastic tubs that we would mic. It was super primal, but it was a really thunderous sound."

"The thing about the noise circuit is it became the electronic crowd," says Strouth, speaking autobiographically. "You get older and you don't have that fire in your belly and you move away from noise." And the crossover has remained fluid, with sound-collage DJ Rod Smith keeping his feet in both camps over the years, and Strouth eventually putting out Savage Aural Hotbed's Pressure of Silence CD on his UltraModern label. Both Savage and Wrong played the Drop Bass Network's Even Further rave earlier this year. And the '80s wave of noise blended just as seamlessly with the free jazz of local drum legend Milo Fine, which certainly informs Wrong's approach to free noise.

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