Guide to the Extremity of Music
by James Ammirato
Living in 2019, there is an endless amount of music. With the advent of platforms such as SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Distrokid, making music of any kind and instantly uploading it for the world to hear has never been easier. With this relatively recent ability, the spectrum of music created has grown, and will continue to grow as long as people can hear a new kind of music, draw influence from it, and eventually make their own product. In my opinion, not only have new genres been invented within the last five or so years, but the boundaries of music production and overall sound have been pushed to an n-th degree, simply because they have to in order to be considered “new in sound.” In this piece which I’ve dubbed a “guide,” I’ll be talking about what I call “extreme” points of music, new and groundbreaking genres and artists, and why fanbases from seemingly unrelated artists sometimes overlap in great numbers.
So what do I mean?
To start, when I say “extreme,” I don’t just mean sonically abrasive or even unlistenable. Genres like “extreme metal” (fake as it is) don’t even typically fall into the wheelhouse of what I would call extreme. I can only assume the term was coined to gain a listenership, due to the fact that a lot of bands that dub themselves extreme metal aren’t all that extreme. When I say extreme, I mean groundbreaking, innovative, cutting edge, and most importantly, ways of making a genre like hip hop or pop sound new. In my opinion, a lot of the time this means adding a noise element to an artist’s music.
What are some examples?
Some popular ones would be artists like Death Grips, who unfortunately at this point have gained meme status, but in their earlier days, on LP’s like The Money Store (2012), and No Love Deep Web (2013), were combining genres like hip hop, metal, industrial, screamo, and noise rock to create an entirely new sound, one that no one could deny is extreme. On the other side, artists like Kero Kero Bonito and the PC Music camp are taking the pop genre and molding it into something entirely futuristic, by boosting what makes the genre what it is to its limit. On KKB’s latest LP, Time ‘n’ Place (2018), the vocals are reminiscent of a young woman who has only heard lo-fi anime hip-hop beats for her entire life, but the production is fascinatingly glitchy and abrasive. This combo makes the record fantastic, due to its innovation and the two worlds of innocent and flawed being combined to create something that you wouldn’t think fits, but in fact does.
Other examples include artists like SOPHIE, who entirely designs her sounds by taking wavetables from the Elektron Monomachine, her synth of choice, and then arranging her tracks and arrangements in R, a programming language used for statistical analysis and data mining. What comes of this are tracks like “Ponyboy” and “Whole New World,” which feature sounds the likes of which are entirely new to electronic music and noise pop.
Does it only apply to hip hop and pop?
Of course not. Since we were talking about pop mixed with noise before, now’s a good time to transition over to solely harsh noise. Artists like Merzbow and Masonna in mid-90’s Japan pioneered the genre of harsh noise through releases like Merzbow’s Pulse Demon (1996) and Masonna’s Spectrum Ripper (1997). Though completely different in performance style, both pushed the boundaries of music to the point where some even stopped calling it as such, and one listen to “Woodpecker No. 1” will tell you why.
Some artists that reside in the grindcore (a subgenre of metal and punk, it combines the speed of punk with the instrumentation and overall heaviness of metal) and noisegrind (similar to grindcore, but typically with a noise element like a harsh electronic overdub) genres take noise to the next level. Full of Hell and The Body have done collaboration albums with straight noise producers, like Merzbow, The Haxan Cloak, and Uniform. An album like Full of Hell & Merzbow highlights both artists’ abilities by showing the two can accompany each other extraordinarily well, and by exhibiting both artists’ sound in a new and ever-evolving way. However, on an album like I Shall Die Here, featuring The Body as produced by The Haxan Cloak, the noise element is starkly different, containing more bit-crushed sounds and much slower song structures than Full of Hell & Merzbow, which is fraught with rapidfire grindcore that zips by the listener at lightning speed. Though the sound of both albums is highly disparate, they both feature music that I think of as extreme and highly innovative.
How long has stuff like this been put out?
Longer than you might think. On what may appear to be a different note, genres like free jazz in my opinion fall into what one would call extreme. Early artists like Ornette Coleman even coined the term with his 1961 release of the same name, and took the first steps down the free jazz road, which would later be further popularized by albums such as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1970).
Another one of my favorite older groups is The Velvet Underground, who many consider to be the inventors of noise rock with their 1968 album, White Light/White Heat. The final song, “Sister Ray,” is a 17-minute, one take improv track about a transgender prostitute named Ray. Needless to say, the song and album as a whole were quite a statement, considering the album’s release year. Regardless of the subject matter however, “Sister Ray” is a sonically stunning piece of music, a remarkable display of noisy ability on the part of all the band members, particularly John Cale. Though The Velvet Underground’s whole discography is one for the history books, their first two albums, the ones featuring Cale, are the ones I believe to be the best. Cale borrowed sonic techniques from such minds as John Cage and La Monte Young, and at such an early date, truly no one was ready for what the band was to put out.
Continuing on the subject of noise rock, later bands like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Lightning Bolt, and Daughters are extreme bands in the sense that they use noise in order to complement their songs and their arrangements and structures, but in different ways. For a band like Lightning Bolt, every move is calculated, their two members are masters at their respective instruments, with Brian Chippendale being in my opinion the world’s greatest drummer. Their arrangements use noise in the sense that with their bass and drums combo, they create a wall of sound that sounds disorganized, but is in reality more deliberate than anyone could imagine. On top of this, their garbled vocals are usually unintelligible, but add a distinct layer to their sound that is completely unique. However, on the flip side, a band like Yo La Tengo use feedback and distortion in a more improvisational way in order to capture the feeling of controlled chaos. Ira Kaplan uses two Pro Co RAT pedals creating an unimaginable level of feedback, a choice that would seem unnecessary, but is in fact crucial to the material the 3-piece puts out.
To wrap up the noise segment, I’d like to touch on some of the burgeoning scenes in Japan and South Asia, namely the power-pop, noise pop, and noisegrind scenes that are popping up all over that area. In Japan, older artists like Melt-Banana have been influencing a new generation of noise-poppers, like Harunemuri. On her latest LP, 2018’s Haru To Shura, the singer blends the signature Japanese pop vocal style with instrumentals that feature blast beats, fiery distorted guitar sounds, and short, simple song structures. On the intro cut, “MAKE MORE NOISE OF YOU,” the listener is immediately catapulted into the tumultuous sound of the band, bright snare drums pounding the eardrums; it’s a perfect introduction to the album.
On the opposite end of the noise spectrum, bands like Wormrot of Singapore, Chepang of Nepal, and Sete Star Sept of Japan are changing the noisegrind/grindcore scenes with their inventive and ever-unfolding sounds. Sete Star Sept in particular do this, as all their material is improvised, even in recordings. Their 2011 album Gero Me is a 50-track, 15-minute blur featuring song lengths from as short as one second to just over a minute. Whether you like the music or not is irrelevant, the record is a perfect example of what I would classify as extreme.
So what does all this have to do with each other?
Well, those that listen to this type of music tend to end up making similarly intense music, even if it’s an entirely different genre. Rapper Lil Ugly Mane grew up a child of the Richmond hardcore scene, becoming invested in the sort of high octane music that he would go on to make several years later. When I saw him live, he even had a Mayhem sweatshirt on, repping one of the more controversial bands of all time, due to their mythos of murder and arson. Extremity manifests itself not just in the music these artists make, but also the culture that surrounds it. On Ugly’s breakout album, Mista Thug Isolation, the MC spits over an hour of horrorcore rap that chills the listener to the bone with its shrieking production style and pitch-shifted vocals, clearly influenced by bands like Mayhem and other black metal acts, even though the genres never overlap. When I was at the show, there were several people there also wearing Mayhem shirts and other metal acts of the like, as well as some punk acts like Agnostic Front. At first, I was surprised, but then it made complete sense to me; the commonality of the artists is the hardcore attitude that’s so appealing to so many people.
On the other side of that, let’s go back to the Death Grips/Kero Kero Bonito fanbase. Though the two acts have seemingly nothing in common, the fanbase overlaps so greatly because of the extreme nature of the production and delivery that both groups have. One listen to a track like “I’ve Seen Footage” from Death Grips next to “Only Acting” from KKB will tell you how similarly the groups function. They even have the same band lineup, a vocalist, a drummer, and someone who handles electronic production.
Will any of this permeate the mainstream?
It actually already has. Since we were discussing collaborations earlier, I might as well point out that we’re entering a phase in the hip hop genre where several well known rappers are becoming more comfortable using experimental production. Someone like Vince Staples is so good at what he does because he’s open to new possibilities in the rap game, and on his second album, Big Fish Theory, enlisted producers the likes of SOPHIE, who I mentioned earlier. A lot of fans probably don’t know that tracks like “Yeah Right (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” and “Samo” were produced by SOPHIE, as evidenced by the distorted base and contrastingly tinny high-end synths, her signature style. With this collaboration, we experienced West Coast hip hop and noise combine in a way that we had never heard.
What should I take away from this?
In the end, if this ended up simply being a little history lesson, I’m fine with that. Maybe all it was was I mentioned an artist in here you’ve never heard of, and that’s good enough for me. But I’d really encourage you to check some of this stuff out. There’s a lot of really interesting things going on with experimentation these days, all you gotta do is look for it. I’ve included some albums below by artists I mention in the article, so try one out, you might be surprised at what you like.
Albums to Check Out:
Death Grips- No Love Deep Web (2013)
Kero Kero Bonito- Time ‘n’ Place (2018)
SOPHIE- OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES (2018)
Merzbow- Pulse Demon (1996)
Masonna- Spectrum Ripper (1997)
The Body & Full of Hell- One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache (2016)
Full of Hell & Merzbow- Full of Hell & Merzbow (2014)
The Body- I Shall Die Here (prod. The Haxan Cloak) (2014)
Ornette Coleman- Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1961)
The Velvet Underground- White Light/White Heat (1968)
Sonic Youth- Goo (1990)
Yo La Tengo- Painful (1993)
Lightning Bolt- Wonderful Rainbow (2003)
Daughters- You Won’t Get What You Want (2018)
Harunemuri- Haru To Shura (2018)
Wormrot- Dirge (2013)
Sete Star Sept- Gero Me (2011)
Lil Ugly Mane- Mista Thug Isolation (2012)