Skoal Kodiak, Squid Fist top list of local bands bringing the noise

Living loud: A local history of experimental music


THE PLACE IS PACKED. In the Nicollet Avenue art gallery, Bryce Beverlin II crouches before a crowded bay of benches, his face concealed by a shroud of hair that falls from the brim of his ratty Raiders cap. An overflow crowd watches him extract a fistful of rope and wire from a leather case. From the hopeless tangle, xylophone keys fall at his knees in a clash of sour chimes. In moments, the floor is a wrack of jetsam—license plates, a pair of wooden blocks, a butter knife. The lights dim.

A gurgle pours from an amplifier, and the crowd shuts up. Beverlin presses the microphone to his lips and sputters, grimaces, bares his teeth. Behind him, Tim Glenn drags a strand of Mardi Gras beads across his snare drum, and Beverlin gags. There is a flex of static noise—Casey Deming is cross-legged before an overturned wooden workbench festooned with bare wires that converge on a mixer resting at his feet. All is stillness.

Then Deming touches a finger to a metal tab affixed to his sawhorse, its solder point flashing in the track light. The room fills with an eruptive drone. Reflexively, the crowd cringes, but then bears into the sound like swimmers into the surf. Beverlin roots through his mound of scraps with the desperation of the suddenly blind. He drags his microphone across the metal scraps and flails the knots of ropes against the floor. He batters the microphone with the license plate. He claps the wood blocks together. One by one, he hammers the xylophone keys with the butter knife, and they skitter into the crowd, still ringing. He is a maelstrom of sound and trash.

It's over in 15 minutes. The crowd applauds. Beverlin rises, and thanks them. "That was called 'Middle School,'" he says softly, before kneeling and slowly beginning to pack everything back into his case.

For half a decade, Beverlin has been a practitioner of noise music, a fractal genre of sound that has spent a century in the periphery, being celebrated by a rogue minority and reviled by the status quo. It's music that knows neither rhythm nor melody. The instruments are as innumerable as matter—in a disused Speak and Spell, the members of Beatrix*Jar see a sonic city, waiting to be rebuilt. They play laptops and tape recorders, scavenged pedals and rebuilt circuit boards.

Theirs is a sound so protean and esoteric that even its practitioners can't quite agree on its terms. It was known to the futurist artists who, at the dawn of industry, built enormous sound machines designed to confront the ear with dissonance. It was foreseen by the composer John Cage, who in 1933 predicted a future wherein traditional composition would be engulfed by the freedom of formlessness. And it was practiced by John Coltrane and Sun Ra, who eschewed Ellington's lounge jazz to create improvisational soundscapes.

The Twin Cities is at the center of the new noise scene. From Squid Fist to Skoal Kodiak, from Wolf Eyes to Animal Collective, from the First Avenue Mainroom to squalid art studios in south Minneapolis, what was once a niche taste is increasingly attracting a mainstream audience.

"If you go to a show, and someone is screaming, and someone is playing pedals, and there's all these horrific sounds coming out, it evokes a response in you," says Beverlin. "It's a desired part of being human. We want evocation. And we do plenty of crazy things to get it."

AT 62, MICHAEL YONKERS is as long, thin, and spectrally pale as an elephant tusk. He speaks in a paternal baritone, as calm and as staid as oak, but sings with frailty, lifting into a panicked upper register. He's got a bad back that keeps him from performing regularly. But a career of over four decades and dozens of releases stretches back to a time in local music when "noise" was a pejorative. For the Twin Cities, noise began with Yonkers.

When he was two years old, he stuck scrap metal in a socket and spent a week in the hospital. Ever after, he would fall asleep with a transistor radio beneath his pillow tuned to Top 40, and awake with noise in his head.

In 1962, Chubby Checker and Ray Charles were topping the charts, and Yonkers was a reclusive 15-year-old, gutting off-brand amplifiers, jamming them with hand-built effects, and making a terrible racket on a Harmony hollow body. Before long he was recording himself on reel-to-reel, and, in fits of curiosity, cutting up the tape with a razor blade and reassembling the pieces into a Dadaist mess. He built rudimentary synthesizers from crude mail-away kits and crammed his effects into a portable box.

While the folk singers and rock bands that crowded the city's stages and garages talked loudly of cultural upheaval, Yonkers's sounds proved unwelcome to ears preoccupied by the Beatles and Bob Dylan. By 1968, he had recorded "Microminiature Love," a pioneer's opus of atonal noise rock that wouldn't see distribution for 35 years. At open stages up and down the West Bank, Yonkers performed to sparse, flummoxed crowds.

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